As this site is now more mortuary than blog, onto more pleasant topics. One of the best things about a week away from the big city is the opportunity to read books, rather than the usual run of magazines, newspapers, and website that keep me up to date on the directorial departed. I've started John Berendt's Venice-set followup to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The City of Falling Angels. This after finishing Martin Cruz Smith's latest thriller spotlighting the indefatigable investigator ,Stalin's Ghost, which arrived on my birthday.
I've read most of Smith's novels since the late 1970s, when his New Mexico-set vampire bat spooker Nightwing flapped across my desk (an excellent novel that deserves a cinematic do-over; the 1979 film version, from lightweight director Arthur Hiller, is terrible.) Other books of his have dealt with Los Alamos and Pearl Harbor. But the cornerstone of his reputation are the six Renko novels, which commenced with the best-selling Gorky Park in 1981, which was made into a so-so 1983 movie with William Hurt. Detective thrillers are ideal for burrowing into cloistered societies, and Smith started writing them at an ideal moment, as the Soviet Union started its thaw back into Russia. The first sequel, Polar Star, took the disgraced Renko to Siberia; the next, Red Square, back to the Soviet Union in its dying days. Havana Bay was no day at the beach for the detective in sunny, corrupt Cuba. My favorite was the last one, 2004's Chernobyl-set Wolves Eat Dogs, which, with its radiation poisoning killings, eerily anticipates the recent Russia/Britain spy flap. Has no one noticed the connection?
In Stalin's Ghost, Renko, already struggling with a semi-adoptive son and a distant doctor girlfriend carried over from the last installment, grapples with soldiers from the Chechnya campaign who are regrouping as an American-advised political party in the new Russia. The great leader makes an appearance, metaphorically, as the novel deals with the creeping re-Stalinization of the country, where he is invoked as a martyr (Smith can only bring himself to use the name of Putin once), and literally: Renko's father was a general in his army, and there are flashbacks to their turbulent father-son relationship. There's a lot on Smith's plate this time, and the book moved quickly, and surely, as I sprinted toward the finish line. It's rare that series of books maintain such a high level of quality over a long period of time, and the author continues to do well by an inexhaustible subject he has made his own.
Note to PBS and the BBC: With Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison pensioned off, I suggest all the Renko books as more-than-suitable, and ever-topical, replacements for the mystery-starved.