Crime, mystery, thriller
Approx. 156,000 words
THE NOVEL | THE TEXT
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 who find the concept of a murder investigation in a supposedly socialist country a novelty.
For others, 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.
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 potboilers—sharply sardonic, highly quotable lines alternating with 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.
But that may not matter. By about halfway through, 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?
However, far from any earth-shaking corruption being revealed, the conspiracy behind it all turns out to be rather mundane.
What most interests readers 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 can appear to resders in the West. If the book 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 attract less attention.
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 McMillan
THE NOVEL | THE TEXT