on March 8, 2001
I often return to "Gorky Park." I almost didn't go there at all. The film was not very good, although I liked Joanna Pakula. One day I read "Polar Star" (literally in one day, since I could not put it down) and I was hooked: I had to read "Gorky Park." Almost ten years later, I think I've read it ten times. I can always spare a day or two for one of my favorite books.
Welcome to the world of Investigator Arkady Renko, whose superiors use him, whose wife doesn't love him, whose country is like an insane asylum where the patients have the run of the place and sane people like Renko do the best they can. This is a great mystery novel, but the level of Smith's writing puts him far above the level of what we expect from "genre" novels. His characters became real people for whose fate I really cared. His plot is complicated but not overwhelmingly so. He does not trick the reader. And his detective, the militia investigator Arkady Renko, is one of the most memorable detectives in fiction: smart without being pedantic, intelligent, patriotic (yes, our Arkady truly loves his country), loyal to his friends and the woman he falls in love with. This is not the picture of a perfect man, but that of a basically good man. Renko is believable in his feelings and attitudes, and that is due to Smith's talent. Also thanks to the author we get an almost Dickensian description of Moscow and the inner workings of criminal investigations in the old Soviet Union. I felt I was in Moscow, and I finished reading the book truly caring for the characters in it, particularly Renko. Smith's novel is powerful, well-written, engaging, insightful, and a lesson in how talented writing can be applied to genre fiction for the benefit of everyone involved. "Gorky Park" and the other Renko novels are so far above genre, they make the rest look really bad, and they provide hope for genre novels in general: talent should not be divorced from entertainment. Excellent read.
Martin Cruz Smith's "Gorky Park" is a literary thriller, and is more notable for Smith's unique style and his gift for capturing the bizarre Soviet world than it is its conventional plot and resolution.
"Gorky Park" is ostensibly a police procedural, where maverick investigator Arkady Renko is the "one good cop" in a corrupt justice system investigating the murders of three young people in Moscow. Of course, this being a thriller, Renko's investigation takes him high up the food chain, where he gets a chance to expose high corruption, nefarious deeds by officials, and the hypocrisy of the world he lives in. And, of course, he falls in love with a gorgeous woman along the way.
Two things set "Gorky Park" apart from conventional thrillers you see in every airport bookstore. The first has to be Smith's command of daily life in the Soviet Union. Published in 1981 before the collapse of the Soviet Union, "Gorky Park" sweeps along with the rhythm of daily life under communism, and it's a disjointing, jarring rhythm indeed. Smith combines an eye for detail with what must have been eye-numbing research to transport the reader to another world that is completely alien to Americans. The novel starts out in Moscow and ends in New York, and it's interesting that Smith is so able to capture the jarring differences between the two cities.
Smith's style also elevates "Gorky Park." Too many thrillers use language in purely functional terms, and dialogue is invariably direct and serves the purpose of clearly advancing plot or building character. In "Gorky Park," Smith is much more subtle than your average author. Many passages and lines require re-reading to figure out what is actually being said -- not that Smith writes badly, it's just that most of "Gorky Park" is heavily laden with subtext, and Smith also has the patience to let "Gorky Park" unfold gradually. While this may slow the novel down somewhat, it also makes the story deeper and richer.
"Gorky Park" is not a pleasant novel, or a "fun read." Arkady Renko is not one of those cops who throws off pitch-perfect quips, and he is not a physical juggernaut prone to kicking butt and taking names. Rather, he is the perfect investigator for the Soviet system - dogged, intelligent, and deeply cynical. It's that cynicism that lets Renko see his fellow Soviets for who they are, and this insight makes him a great detective.
I admire "Gorky Park" more than I like it, which is why I give the novel only four stars. Renko, it must be said, is a bit of a downer. The novel opens with the dissolution of Renko's marriage, and Renko spends most of the novel in a morose funk (and not necessarily due to the divorce). Renko is a man who has been almost entirely crushed by the Soviet system and also by his family, and all that is left in his is a spark of his former self. It is that spark, that undying, implacable fire inside Renko that makes him such a compelling character. Dour, fatalistic, cyncial, pessimistic, to be sure, but very compelling.
on April 18, 2004
It was unfortunate I saw the Hollywood version of "Gorky Park" before reading the novel. The film does not do justice to the main character or the storyline. It cannot compare to the book! After reading "Polar Star" and Red Square", the second and third installments of the series, I picked up the original and loved it. More recently, "Havana Bay" was published, and later this year a long-awaited fifth novel, "Wolves Eat Dogs", will be released. Arkady Renko, the protagonist of the series, is an honest, dedicated, hard-working Ukrainian cop. When he was Chief Homicide Inspector for the Moscow Prosecutor's Office, he took charge of a grisly murder case involving the international fur trade. Very quickly, he fell afoul of the KGB. That's how his troubles began, which pursue him throughout all four novels. I recommend this series highly. The settings are supurbly drawn -- from snowbound Moscow to an Arctic Sea fish processing ship, from a steam-filled banya to the steamy port of Havana. Wherever he goes, Arkady brings his cynical love-hate relationship with the Soviet system which often impedes his work. Like Columbo, he outsmarts the sly evil-doers while seemingly fumbling his way along the investigation. And he has more lives than the proverbial cat as his sleuthing lands him in the most lethal stews! Author Martin Cruz Smith has created one of the most likable protagonists in police fiction. Cleverly writing the character as just "Arkady" -- intimately using his first name -- helps endear him to the reader. We care for Arkady because of his moral strengths, his humility and compassion, and despite his weaknesses. Along the way, Arkady has fallen obsessively in love with the most unsuitable woman imaginable: an obnoxious, abrasive dissident who not only treats him like dirt and breaks his heart, but is the cause of his political woes. It is hard to lament in the least her later demise! But we sympathize with our hero's suffering and rejoice in his small rewards. Reward yourself by reading this exceptional series, beginning with "Gorky Park"!
Most mystery writers today produce books that are like cotton candy: they're light, fluffy, give you a quick sugar high, and are ultimately unsatisfying in the long run. Unfortunately, most of these writers produce a book a year-whether they have anything new to say or not. Once in a great while, a mystery writer comes along whose work is so broad in scope as to resemble great literature. Martin Cruz Smith belongs to this elite group, and Gorky Park is one of the best mysteries ever written.
Arkady Renko is Chief Investigator of Homicide for the city of Moscow before the fall of communism. While he has a 100% success rate in investigating homicides, his personal life is less than stellar. Renko is called in when three faceless, fingerless bodies are discovered in the snow at Gorky Park during a spring thaw. He is able to take what little evidence there is, and starts putting together the pieces of this complicated puzzle. The closer he gets to the truth, the more evident it is that someone (maybe the KGB or even someone in his own office) does not want him to solve this crime.
But what makes Gorky Park so fascinating is the Russian angle. Solving crimes and investigative techniques are a bit different than in the United States (they tend to use a lot of vodka, for one thing). Not only does Arkady have the party bureaucracy to contend with, but the KGB is also looking over his shoulder. It is often hard to tell who are the bad guys. We also get a glimpse of what it was like to live in Soviet Russia. Professionals like Renko didn't get very high salaries, and living conditions were often spartan.
But where Cruz Smith really excels is in his characters. Renko is probably one of the most memorable characters in any mystery. He is a very likable, sympathetic man with a kind heart. His humble, self-deprecating manner belies a brilliant mind, which he needs to fight not just criminals, but also the Soviet system. But Renko also carries a lot of baggage, and it sometimes interferes with his job.
Cruz Smith's plot will keep you up nights, reading to find out what happens. Gorky Park is also filled with ironic wit. Renko never tries to take himself too seriously, and we learn that humor is the best way to survive in the Soviet Union. When one character tells Renko that he wants to kill him, Renko responds "this is Russia. Get in line." The exchange between Renko and an FBI agent about defection will have you in stitches.
If Gorky Park isn't the best mystery written today, it's certainly close to the top of the list.
on August 27, 2006
I arrived at this novel indirectly, after having read 'Havana Bay' and 'Polar Star';#'s 4 & 2 respectively in the Arkady Renko series. There is also the 1983 film-noir, starring William Hurt as the protagonist Arkady. Semi surprisingly the author, Martin Cruz Smith, an american, reveals considerable knowledge of cold war Moscow. Research which took him eight years to complete this book. 'Polar Star' and 'Havana Bay' make better narrative sense if read in chronological order I found to my slightly humourous dismay. Fans of Major/then Colonel Pribluda will be pleased to know his character appears in both sequels.
I read "Stalin's Ghost" as my first Renko novel, and decided to go back to the headwaters with "Gorky Park", not having any knowledge of the movie, either. It is clear why GP launched a series that lives today, from one side of the breakup of the Soviet Union to the other. The contrast between the two novels when read close together is substantial, given how different Russia is today from the Soviet era. However, in many other ways, it's the same old scene, ripe for observations light and dark about Russians, corruption, politics, vodka and the dreary nature of everyday life.
With all the years in between, the Renko of the latter novel remains true to the Renko who debuted in Gorky Park. He is intelligent and a shrewd investigator underestimated by his enemies and rivals, he loves Russia while cynical about its flaws, he eschews the political games, he is persistent and dedicated to his craft while surrounded by corruption and slackers, and he appreciates attractive, mysterious women. He sounds like my kind of guy. I agree with another reviewer that Renko compares well with Harry Bosch of Michael Connelly's collection.
The story itself has an excellent plot. The bad guys are not that hard to decipher, yet Smith keeps everything moving and sufficiently obscure. The identification of the dead threesome seemed rather easy, as did the quickness with which Renko hooked up with the young Irina. Osborne and some other supporting characters are finely drawn, and Smith also captures some essence of NY City for the eyes of a new foreign visitor.
One advantage of the age of the novel and its setting: Renko succeeds more-or-less the old fashioned way. This is not CSI with fancy technology doing the work. Renko's brain was the main device. I must say, though, that the dwarf's reconstruction of the deceased's head did have a bit of 21st-century CSI touch about it.
4.5 stars, rounded up
on October 7, 2005
Gorky Park, the opening book in a (to date) quartet of novels concerning a brilliant, socially disaffected detective from Moscow, is as much a tale of late Soviet life as it is a mystery and thriller. This novel begins after three bodies--two men and a woman, all of them young--are discovered in a melting snowbank outside one of Moscow's most popular theme parks. The bodies have been strategically mutilated so as to prevent identification and, despite any indications of a struggle, all three victims were shot at point blank range with a high powered handgun. From there, not only is identification made in a rather more swift fashion than the calculating killer imagined possible, but a complex plot involving government corruption, political dissidents, and the smuggling of one of the Soviet Union's most valued resources, is exposed. An edge of your seat drama, a sociological case study in dreary Soviet life, and a fine delving into the universal themes of human psychology, all set against the deadly, gripping cold of a Moscow winter. A really great book that starts off a really great series!
on August 8, 2007
After reading HAVANA BAY, I went upstream to GORKY PARK. Both novels are so very good, even though the thriller/mystery component is not that compelling; it doesn't have to be. Gorky Park is smart and cerebral, like Arkady Renko. Every page is rich with great characters, great dialogue, good writing style and pace. It's about life, police work, corruption, greed, political influence and survival in the former USSR and reminds me of the great James Ellroy novels. Martin Cruz Smith also compares with John Le Carré. Five star plus for Gorky Park and on to Polar Star.
on November 2, 2010
I'm not sure why I never read Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park earlier, but after nearly 30 years, I finally got around to it. It's a very good literary thriller, elevated by Smith's insight into life behind the Iron Curtain. It is this insight and unique backdrop that raises this novel above its otherwise conventional crime story.
Investigator Renko is trying to solve the murder of three young people in Gorky Park but conducting an investigation in the Soviet Union isn't easy when the investigation leads places the political machinery doesn't want him to go. There are political pressures and jurisdiction issues that hamper the investigation and aspects of his personal life (his loveless failing marriage, his legendary father who has fallen out of favour with the Party, and his apparent disregard for advancement in the Party) only complicate matters. Needless to say Renko's investigation will lead him to expose corruption of superiors.
This is an intelligent novel. There are layers to the dialogue where not everyone says what they mean and motives and ulterior motives are played out in a kind of deadly chess game. This is not necessarily light reading. There is no clever banter and the pace may be slower than some people like. Renko is stubborn, cynical, and morose (not necessarily qualities that fans of wise-cracking, butt-kicking, square-jawed action heroes are looking for) but I appreciated his flaws. Renko is a fully realized three-dimensional character.
Gorky Park is regarded as a benchmark in the crime fiction genre and its unique insight (particularly in its day) of Soviet culture is fascinating. The crime elements in the novel are pretty standard fair, but the writing, characters, and setting elevate it to a higher level. 4 ½ stars.
on April 16, 2012
My husband is a Russian immigrant-he grew up in Ekateringburg, a city in the Ural Mountains, and he was very impressed with how accurately everyday life in Russia is portrayed in this book. I asked him about the scene where Renko's friend is happy with his broken washing machine, and he said that was true to life-that a Russian in that time would be happy with any new appliance whether it worked or not, because it was so hard to actually get anything. I thought about my time in Russia, and walking for blocks to buy milk, and then more blocks to buy cereal, and the American cop's comment about how there was no fresh meat in the stores. It's true-there wasn't much fresh food. All the little details of Russian life rang true.
Aside from my own personal experience, this was a fascinating mystery. It's not so much a who-done-it as a why-would-they-have-done-it. The story revolves around Russian sables-an animal so rare it's hard to find pictures on the Internet, that produces fur so valuable it's literally worth its weight in gold. In these days of political correctness, when fur is frowned upon, it's a truly unique look at a world where a coat can cost one hundred thousand dollars and a man will skin murder victims just to acquire a few animals. There's also some pretty ferocious commentary on how our government works, and it doesn't seem like there's much to choose between the United States and Soviet Russia when it comes to high finance. This is the book that introduced me to Arkady Renko and his love-hate relationship with Russia, and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for a different kind of detective story.