When among old friends, you can let your guard down. You can say things you wouldn’t otherwise say. You make references that outsiders can’t follow. Sometimes a short hand is created without even trying so that certain words and actions evoke a whole series of stories; you laugh before the joke is finished. So it is with writers as they become comfortable with their material. They make old friends of a genre, of particular characters or environments, even of individual words. Good books sometimes have this kind of feeling and sometimes they don’t: Morrison’s Song of Solomon has it, but Beloved does not; McCarthy is not so comfortable in Blood Meridian, but is perhaps too comfortable in The Crossing; Woolf was probably never comfortable (though obviously had absolute command over her work), while Garcia Marquez seems always comfortable, yet both have written superb books as well as not-so-great ones.
In Stalin’s Ghost, it is apparent as never before that Martin Cruz Smith knows his genre (mystery), his character (Arkady Renko), and his setting (Russia). His prose is sparer, his dialog crisper, his metaphors more ethereal, his references more veiled—only fitting in a mystery. Smith has always been a good writer and I’ve liked everything of his I’ve read; Gorky Park, Polar Star, Rose, and December 6 are among my favorites. Stalin’s Ghost joins his other work with a plot you want to devour and writing you want to savor. Either way, it rewards your focused attention.