Tag Archives: Stuart M. Kaminsky

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

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

‘Black Knight in Red Square’ by Stuart M. Kaminsky

Black Knight in Red Square

In the second Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov police procedural by Stuart M. Kaminsky, Black Knight in Red Square, the shrewd Moscow police detective faces the challenge of terrorism. The Moscow Film Festival is going on, and someone just poisoned four hotel guests – two Russians and two foreigners.

Rostnikov’s superiors assign him and his team to investigate – but on the quiet. Keep it out of the news. He suspects strongly that they expect him to fail, and that they are fine with that. He’s expendable. But Rostnikov has his own agenda. He’s working out a way to emigrate to the West with his Jewish wife.

In the midst of a three-pronged investigation, one of Rostnikov’s assistants – the dangerous-looking fanatic Communist Karpo – will come face to face with an adversary who is his equal in shrewdness and single-minded devotion to a cause. The climax is highly dramatic and satisfying. We also get to see Rostnikove participate in a weight-lifting competition.

What can I say? It’s Kaminsky, so it’s a satisfying story, full of well-conceived and rounded characters. Also it’s set in summer. I can bear Moscow a little better in summer than in winter. (That comment should indicate how good the author is at evoking place and climate.)


‘Death of a Dissident’ by Stuart M. Kaminsky

Death of a Dissident

The doznaniye or inquiry is based on the frequently stated assumption that “every person who commits a crime is punished justly, and not a single innocent person subjected to criminal proceedings is convicted.” This is repeated so frequently by judges, procurators, and police that almost everyone in Moscow is sure it cannot be true.

I felt a sudden longing for an old favorite author, so I thought I’d tackle Stuart M. Kaminsky’s Inspector Porphiry Rostnikov books. I’ve generally avoided this series, because the one I did read was so grim. It’s not that the writing’s bad. It’s great (as witness the dry-humored passage above), and Kaminsky’s always perceptive and humane characters are as good here as anywhere else. I just don’t like the Soviet Union. The ugliness of the architecture, the scarcity and hunger, the deadening regulations, the fear of surveillance, even the cold of Moscow – it tends to wear me down. Even when the stories are good and the characters fascinating. As they are here.

Author Kaminsky decided to challenge himself to write a police procedural like Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct books, but set it in Moscow. The result is, I think, very successful (when you adjust for my prejudices). Porphiry Rostnikov, hero of Death of a Dissident, is a wounded World War II veteran (the time is the 1980s), disabled by an old leg injury, which doesn’t stop him working. In fact, he’s a weight lifter, contemplating entering an amateur competition. His subordinates are Karpo (a dedicated Marxist who looks like a vampire), and Tkatch (a young detective recently married).

When a prominent dissident is murdered in his apartment two days before his scheduled trial, a suspect is quickly identified and arrested. Word comes down from above that this will do for an investigation. No further inquiry will be required. However, a seemingly connected murder that follows shortly after has Rostnikov walking a dangerous line, trying to stop a serial killer while not upsetting the political cart. A man of lesser strategic intelligence would wreck his career and perhaps lose his freedom, but Rostnikov knows his business.

Good book, and people less prejudiced toward the Soviet Union than I will probably enjoy it even more than I did. There’s nothing pro-Soviet here; the anti-Communism is subtextual but ubiquitous. Nothing much in the way of objectionable material either.