‘Death of a Russian Priest,’ by Stuart M. Kaminsky

Death of a Russian Priest

“You are a true believer,” she answered. “A true believer needs a cause or he will wither. It is known in the lives of the saints that a man is twice blessed who embraced the devil before he embraces God. I see it in your eyes. During the service for Father Merhum the Holy Mother found you.”

I’m kind of flying through Stuart M. Kaminsky’s series of Russian police procedurals starring Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov, Moscow detective. Rostnikov is a squat man whose nickname is “the Washtub.” He drags along a crippled leg, a souvenir of his teenaged service in World War II. When not solving crimes, he likes to fix his neighbors’ plumbing, read American crime novels, and lift weights. He is a man of deep compassion who approaches his cases from human understanding. Though his passion for justice has often brought him into conflict with police officials and the KGB, his native shrewdness has allowed him and his team to stay on the job. He always has to compromise somehow, the world being what it is, but he survives.

The series is longer than I realized, and it extends past the fall of the Soviet Union. In the unsettled times of Glasnost and Perestroika, Rostnikov’s demotion to a division with mostly ceremonial duties proves a career advantage. His successful investigations raise his division’s prestige, and its lack of political connections allows it to rise unimpeded in the political chaos.

I’m not going to review the whole series, which I haven’t finished yet, but Death of a Russian Priest stood out for me. In the new Russia, the Orthodox Church is reasserting itself, but does not stand unchallenged. Father Vasili Merhum of the village of Arkush, after performing his final mass before leaving town to lead a protest against government policies, is murdered with an ax. Porfiry Rostnikov is sent to investigate, along with a faithful member of his team, Emil Karpo. Karpo is a troubled soul. A dour, impassive man who looks like a vampire, his whole life has been spent in monk-like devotion to the Communist Party. Now his god has failed, and he operates on automatic pilot, troubled by frequent migraines. What made this book particularly interesting to me was Karpo’s reluctant attraction to what he sees in the church, the only institution that appeals for the same kind of commitment he longs to give.

It’s fascinating that a Jewish author like Kaminsky, who has no reason to love the Russian Orthodox Church (rather the opposite), presents a pretty appealing picture of the Church as a living institution, though very real moral failings within the Church are crucial to the plot. I’m not sure we’re supposed to believe that Emil Karpo will ultimately be converted, but one character in the book is convinced of it.

In a parallel plot thread, young detective Sasha Tkatch, another team member back in Moscow, is assigned to hunt for a young Arab girl, the daughter of a Syrian diplomat, who has disappeared. Sasha is nearly losing his mind, troubled by his approaching thirtieth birthday, his wife’s difficult pregnancy, his guilt over previous mistakes that caused injury to a partner, and his suppressed attraction to a new female partner. He manages to close the case without going crazy, but it’s a near run thing. However, the conclusion brings comfort.

The whole story, like all the entries in this series, is fascinating and full of profound human understanding, which was Kaminsky’s forte. I enjoyed it a lot. Very little to caution you about in terms of content, except for intensity.

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