The Rostnikov novels, by Stuart M. Kaminsky: An appreciation

A Whisper for the Living

I’ve been spending my New Year holiday in a manner delicious to me – staying at home mostly, resting, and trying to let a new set of medications kill off this bronchial infection that’s taken up residence in my respiratory system. I think the next step, if this fails, is tenting and fumigation.

And so I finished at last Stuart M. Kaminsky’s fascinating police procedural series set in Russia, starring Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov. I’ve reviewed several of these books before, so I’ll just do a blanket appreciation of the series here. It’s weary to work to put up a string of direct links to each volume on Amazon. So here’s the link to Amazon’s list of Rostnikov books.

The books are remarkably consistent, and yet there are major changes over time. Rostnikov and his team remain generally intact all through, with only limited alterations (major or minor) in relationships and domestic situations. There’s young detective Sasha Kotch, constantly bedeviled by a libido that threatens his marriage, and might result in his losing his children. He suffers greatly with guilt, but not enough to really change his ways. His peace of mind is not improved by the constant meddling of his mother, a deaf woman who refuses to use her hearing aids, turning every conversation into a shouting match.

There’s Emil Karpo, “the Vampire,” a man who aspires to becoming the perfect Communist machine. He excels in logic and eschews human relationships. And yet humanity creeps in. Regular liaisons with a prostitute morph into genuine human tenderness. The loss of that relationship, along with the fall of the Soviet Union (traumatic for Karpo) leave him in genuine existential despair. It’s hard to create a Communist character with whom I am willing to sympathize. Kaminsky succeeded with Karpo.

There’s Elena Timofeyova, a young female detective struggling to prove herself in a system that preaches gender equality but does not practice it. She falls in love with Iosef Rostnikov, Inspector Rostnikov’s son, who joins the team after careers in the army and as a playwright.

A fascinating addition to the team is Zelach, a splendid creation. Zelach starts out as a sort of a nullity, a big, stupid Russian cop. He could have easily been a stereotype, but Kaminsky has fun with him. Zelach is not smart, and he knows it. He is a humble soul, happy to take orders and do his job the best he can. And then we learn that he’s a master soccer kicker, a talent he keeps secret and does not want to capitalize on. In each further installment, we are introduced to some new, surprising talent possessed by Zelach – often remarkable, and in one case borderline supernatural. There’s a fine meditation on human nature in Zelach.

Above them all, the central character, Porfiry Rostnikov. Crippled in one leg by a tank in World War II, he lives patiently with his disability and compensates through devoted, obsessive bodybuilding. He loves American jazz and crime novels, especially Ed McBain. As a hobby, he is an amateur plumber; the rationality of plumbing systems is a relief after the complexity of human motivations. Rostnikov is an intuitive detective, feeling his way into people’s hearts and generally predicting their moves before they themselves know what they will be. This sometimes allows author Kaminsky to employ his hero as a kind of deus ex machina – sometimes even beyond the point of plausibility, but not too often.

When the books start, Rostnikov works for the Procurator’s Office in Moscow, where other officers resent him for his unorthodox methods and crime-solving success, and interfere with him. Later he is transferred to a division that’s supposed to be mostly ceremonial, under the command of an officer generally considered a fool. But he is less a fool than people think, and he leverages Rostnikov’s successes into his own promotion. The office is then taken over by “the Yak,” an amoral bureaucrat who is nevertheless a good boss for the team. The Yak is not concerned with justice but with amassing embarrassing information on important people, in order to increase his own power. This mean the cases Rostnikov solves are often not pursued to trial. Yet the Yak is loyal to his subordinates and backs them up at the operational level. Rostnikov takes it philosophically. He does what he can, as we all do, and when it’s out of his hands he lets it go.

Most of the Rostnikov books are published by Mysterious Press, but the last two were published by Forge. It appears that A Whisper to the Living, the final one, was published posthumously. It has the same feeling at the end as Kaminsky’s last Lew Fonesca book, as if the author knew he was dying and was deliberately tying up loose ends and saying goodbye. I wasn’t sure he was entirely successful in this instance, but it was good to see how some things came out, and the series as a whole is superlative.

Minor cautions for language, gore, and adult themes, but Stuart M. Kaminsky was a very humane writer, and there’s a gentle spirit at work throughout.

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