Title: Gorky Park
Author: Martin Cruz Smith
Smith, Martin Cruz (1981). Gorky Park. New York: Random House
- Renko, Arkady (Fictitious character)–Fiction.
- Police–Russia (Federation)–Moscow–Fiction.
- Moscow (Russia)–Fiction.
Date Posted: January 1, 2017
Reviewed by Peter Andrews
Just when I was beginning to worry that the large-scale adventure novel might be suffering from a terminal case of the Folletts, along comes Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, a book that reminds you just how satisfying a smoothly turned thriller can be. Mr. Smith fulfills all of the requirements of the adventure novel and then transcends the genre. Gorky Park is a proper novel, illuminated with fascinating glimpses of contemporary Russian life, a story dappled with flashes of irony.
Arkady Renko, chief police inspector for the People’s Militia, is brought in to investigate the deaths of three people found in the snow of Moscow’s Gorky Park. The three have been shot at close range, the tips of their fingers snipped off with shears, and their “faces skinned, like freshly killed game. A strange case, comrade? Well, yes, because before Renko is finished, he will track a psychopathic killer across two continents, only to find himself hunted in turn by the K.G.B., the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and the New York Police Department. Gorky Park covers a lot of territory.
It is difficult to examine a mystery story in detail without giving too much away. But, in essence, Gorky Park is a police procedural of uncommon excellence. Martin Cruz Smith has managed to combine the gritty atmosphere of a Moscow police squad room with a story of detection as neatly done as any English manor-house puzzlement. I have no idea as to the accuracy of Mr. Smith’s descriptions of Russian police operations. But they ring as true as crystal.
I know I first learned about the New York City Police Department from the Ed McBain novels, and that information has held up over the years as well as anything I learned in civics class. Now, Mr. Smith gives us a nicely coarse-grained series of portraits of Russian policemen: the paper shufflers, the time servers, the informers who will squeal on their friends for a promotion, and those dogged men who are trying to do their best at a difficult and dangerous job. A policeman’s lot in Moscow, according to Mr. Smith, can be a particularly unhappy one. The rules of evidence have to yield to the requirements of propaganda. The Soviets, for example, have decreed that prostitution does not exist in Russia. Therefore, women arrested for it must be doing something else. The K.G.B., those defenders of State security, look over the shoulders of every Russian policeman, and are ready to usurp or wreck an investigation at any time, all in the name of the national interest. Although the picture Mr. Smith paints is a thoroughly Russian one, no American who has ever watched our own law enforcement agencies make crime statistics jump through hoops or who recalls an F.B.I. figure slinging important evidence into the Potomac River will be on unfamiliar ground. One of the wonders of Gorky Park is how easily we recognize Renko, the honest Communist policeman. Indeed, he seems in many ways, a spinoff of the American loner-hero.
Chief Inspector Renko is no super sleuth given to brilliant flashes of deduction. He is a cop, whose job is to clean up the bloodstains left by his fellow citizens in moments of rage and madness. Most of his homicide experience has been in the dreary run of domestic crime–a Muscovite brains his spouse with a vodka bottle and wanders off, leaving a trail of gore that Abbott and Costello could follow. But the business in Gorky Park is something else. It is, Renko notes, “a crime of wit.” And for the first time, his skills as an investigator are truly tested. What follows is a model of good detective-story writing. When Renko makes each successive deduction, it is not because he knows anything we do not, but because he has thought more deeply and more interestingly about the information we both have. As Renko unravels the case, suspicion shifts from Renko’s own boss to the K.G.B. and to a villainous American, who is, as my grandmother used to say, “slippery as greased okra.”
When Renko claps his hands in delight at a new revelation, we are just a few steps behind him, which is about the right distance to keep between a professional and an amateur in such matters. And Arkady Renko is a good man to stay close to. Once on the trail of a killer, he will not let go until simple justice has been done. But there is no simple justice in the case of the three murdered people in Gorky Park. There are smugglers’ fortunes to be made, there are scandals that must be suppressed, there are great economic issues and matters of national security, both Russian and American, far more important than a policeman’s duty. And as he pursues a murderer through Russia and on to New York City, it is the policeman who is in the greatest danger.
Gorky Park depicts a society where it is important to own a washing machine even if it doesn’t work, so that your neighbors know you possess such a wonderful thing. Mr. Smith has fashioned a kind of reverse comedy of manners. One deserving detective is denied advancement because he had a prince for a grandfather, while an incompetent is promoted well beyond his capabilities because he can trace his lineage back to the pure proletariat. Mr. Smith has the genuine novelist’s ability to make us look at familiar surroundings with the insights of his characters. When Renko’s beloved comes to New York, she sees it as a sort of fabulous municipal boutique filled with luxury items you do not need a party card to buy. All you need is money. On the other hand, Renko, a cop with few illusions, drives through the streets in a N.Y.P.D. squad car and sees a filthy city impossible to police or control.
Gorky Park has much to say about the police-state mentality. When Renko compares Russian and American police and security work, each with its own way of ignoring reality, each with its own institutionalized savagery, it takes a true patriot to prefer one to the other. Renko is, of course, a true patriot at heart. Even so, he realizes, “It’s been proved we can’t trust anyone.”
If Gorky Park suffers from a flaw, it is one that is common among even the best examples of the genre. There is a falling-off at the end, when the plot turns about three notches more than my credulity is prepared to be stretched. But the first 340 pages were splendid. Finally, Renko–vulnerable, decent, brave and smart–extracts a measure of honor from a shabby international affair and takes his place alongside the best creations of John Le Carré.
 Peter Andrews, “Murder In Moscow, Arkady Renko on The Case,” The New York Times (April 5, 1981, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 1, Column 1; Book Review Desk). Peter Andrews, a contributing editor to Saturday Review, frequently reviews adventure novels.