Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith Macmillan, HK$216 Drawing on a template that will prove familiar to anyone who has ever seen an action movie, Martin Cruz Smith's latest novel, Stalin's Ghost, reintroduces his readers to Arkady Renko, the honest, hapless but brilliant Russian criminal investigator with a contempt for the authority figures who disapprove of his disregard for procedure. As the novel opens, Renko is given the unusual assignment of following up on reports that a ghost resembling Joseph Stalin is haunting the platform at one of Moscow's subway stations.The investigation, naturally, does not steer a steady course and sees Renko become embroiled in a scandal involving the Russian Patriot movement, a nationalist political party nostalgic for the Stalinist past. Led by a charismatic Red Army veteran from the second Chechen war who also happens to be a fellow detective and the new object of his girlfriend's affections, Renko follows the party on the campaign trail for the upcoming national elections in a bid to uncover discrepancies about its leaders' past. This is Smith's sixth book featuring his gruff detective protagonist, who first appeared in his 1981 career launching best-seller Gorky Park and then went on to explore the underbelly of the Soviet Union in subsequent novels. Plenty has changed in Russia since Renko's first outing, but, it seems, Smith's novels have not. Reading Stalin's Ghost one senses that Smith is a writer who is more at home dealing with the easy ideological questions of the cold war than the more complex issues facing a society caught between its Soviet past and modernity. The second novel in the series to deal with the 'New Russia' - the first, Wolves Eat Dogs is set against the backdrop of Chernobyl - is again content to revisit Soviet ghosts rather than break new ground. It's hard to escape the feeling that Smith - whose first novel was adapted into a successful film - has written this with one eye on Hollywood. Stalin's Ghost strains under the imperative of making every scene exciting, closing every chapter on a suspenseful note. To this end, Smith succeeds, but only to the detriment of engaging in a deeper treatment of his characters or story. The result is a suspenseful tale, but one that smacks of wasted potential.