The excellent Russian detective Arkady Renko investigates supposed sightings of Josef Stalin in the Moscow subway, getting himself shot in the head in the process.
Nostalgic, steel-toothed babushkas and heroes of the Great Patriotic War are of course among the wishful watchers and waiters Detective Renko spots hoping for a glimpse of the ghost of the Glorious Leader in the world’s busiest subway, but so are an avant-garde filmmaker-turned-pornographer and a couple of American political consultants. Renko, whose relationship with enigmatic emergency physician Eva Kazka began in the ruins of radioactive Chernobyl in Smith’s 2004 Wolves Eat Dogs, continues to find sex with the brilliant Ukranian stupendous, but they seem to be barely speaking out of bed. Part of the problem is Renko’s obsessive detective work. He does not relent. Ever. But there is also the matter of Eva’s continuing relationship with Nikolai Isakov, the commando she met years ago when she was patching up Chechnyans and Isakov was shooting them. Isakov is now a detective like Renko, but one with a political future and friends in high places. Isakov, whose political leanings are toward the old Soviet State, is also involved with the Stalin sightings and with the serial murders of a number of his old comrades from Chechnya. Complicating matters further for Detective Renko is the disappearance of Zhenya, the feral teenaged chess master he’s been trying to civilize. The more Renko uncovers of Isakov’s involvements, the more Renko’s masters want him out of town. And it is outside Moscow, in the unreconstructed Soviet city of Tver, that everything comes to a boil as an unarmed, badly battered Renko takes on Isakov and his remaining associates.
Smith’s lawless modern Russia continues to prove as terrifying as the Cold-War state. Possibly scarier.