Gorky Park first edition
First edition

Gorky Park

Martin Cruz Smith
Novel, 1981
approx. 156,000 words
On Greatest lists
Notable lines
First line

All nights should be so dark, all winters so warm, all headlights so dazzling.

Great lines

Osborne was hiding among the endless words like a man standing sideways among trees.

Proust said that you could seduce any woman if you were willing to sit and listen to her complain until four in the morning.

"There are not many road signs in Russia, you know."" He laughed. "If you don’t know where the road goes, you shouldn't be on it."

Last line

He thrilled as each cage door opened and the wild sables made their leap and broke for snow—black on white, black on white, black on white, and then gone.

Gorky Park

THE NOVEL

Murder in a grey world

Gorky Park was quite the sensation when it came out in 1981, as it presented an American-style detective story in the previously unexplored setting of the Soviet Union. And it still seems to entrance readers for whom the concept of a murder investigation in a supposedly socialist country is a novelty.

To others for whom this is no longer a startling idea, Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park stands today as a moderately competent crime thriller.

Apart from the once-exotic environment, the mystery itself starts out enticingly. Three bodies with identifying features removed are found buried in snow near a skating rink in the titular park. Attending Moscow police investigator Arkady Renko finds state security are also interested in the case. He starts his local investigation in hopes of showing foreign interests are involved, which would allow him to turn it over to the KGB. But in a twist on the usual plot, the state police resist taking charge and are happy to let the local cop struggle along, though they keep careful tabs on his progress.

As in many a modern procedural, the detective brings his own baggage to the case and gets personally involved, especially with a sexy suspect.

And as often happens in American crime stories, the sleuth detects the hands of people in high places at work.

Our anti-hero Renko is actually the son of a famously butcherous general in the Red Army, said to have been a favourite of Josef Stalin years ago (and fictional as far as I can tell). The detective himself is a member of the Communist Party, but in name only, refusing to get further involved, which is one of the reasons his politically fervid wife left him.

Bear in mind this supposedly takes place in the late 1970s, when the Soviet Union's heady economic, scientific and military victories of earlier years were becoming distant memories. Under a succession of grey, corrupt leaders, the empire was descending into the chaos that would bring it down within a few years.

At the time of writing, however, Smith could not have known the dissolution was imminent. Readers must have got the idea they were getting a glimpse behind the so-called Iron Curtain during the height of the Cold War. As they followed the Russian detective getting deeper and deeper into his investigations, the frisson must have been palpable.

Familiar scene

But the story eventually becomes muddled. Too many shadowy characters are uncovered in too many confusing subplots. Too many allies turn villains and back again at the drop of each plot twist.

The uneven writing itself is redolent of cheap potboilers—sharply sardonic, highly quotable lines alternating with such blatantly clumsy constructions that make you wonder whether any editors passed their eyes over them. And it goes on far too long to support its sketchy central plot.

About halfway through the novel, it becomes difficult to maintain much interest in what the detective is investigating. The murders are no longer a mystery that we care about. Our main narrative interest lies in whether Renko, as a lone-wolf investigator will survive the ups and downs and tossed-arounds of the plots within plots. Who will turn against him next? Who will surprisingly ally with him next?

And far from any earth-shaking corruption being revealed, the conspiracy behind it all turns out to be rather mundane.

But this may not matter to a lot of readers. What is most interesting to them may be not the supposed mystery nor the diffuse criminal investigation, but the daily details of a society and culture they didn't know before (and which has somewhat passed now), as revealed through an example of the crime thriller genre.

But what may be most interesting about Gorky Park is how familiar its themes must appear to readers. If it were called Central Park and concerned a maverick New York cop who fends off the FBI, gangsters, bureaucracy and his own higher ups to follow the money trail in a case with the potential to embarrass entrenched interests, well, it would be basically the same novel. Though it would be less interesting.

In fact, in a section near the end of Gorky Park, Renko does follow the case to a corrupt United States, and engages in deadly intrigue with the FBI who it turn out are in league (for reasons that elude me) with the KGB.

Perhaps the point of Gorky Park is not how crime plays out in some alien and exotic society, but rather how similar that environment has become to our own in the West.

— Eric

THE NOVEL

On Amazon:


Gorky Park

On Twitter:

Follow on Twitter