by Martin Cruz Smith
I don’t read much crime or detective fiction, so this is kind of a departure for me (and a first for my blog). But, as I was stumbling through my room, trying to figure out which books would come with me when I moved out of my parents house, Gorky Park caught my eye. I recollected that my mom had given it to me as a gift a few years back. Note to Mom: you give me too many books.
Gorky Park takes place in the Soviet era and follows detective Arkady Renko as he investigates a triple murder in the heart of Moscow. This being the Soviet Union, Arkady figures there’s a good chance the KGB is involved, and decides to dig just deep enough to make his superiors nervous of what he might uncover, so that they’ll give the case to someone else. Anyway, he’s got problems bigger than what he suspects to be a cold case (literally- the bodies went undiscovered for months under the Russian snows). Arkady’s wife, Zoya, is kind of a word that I disapprove of, and she’s always getting on his case for not taking his career seriously. And she’s right: he takes pleasure in pissing off the KGB and disdains party membership, a big no-no in Soviet Russia.
Like I said, I don’t read many detective novels, but I think the appeal of Gorky Park is largely its setting, in every sense of the word. For one thing, the Soviet Union circa 1980 is an interesting and mysterious place for many Americans. We can only imagine the ways that our lives differ from theirs, and though I suspect that Smith himself is also basically imagining how a Russian detective would feel about his society, it just felt right to me. His description of Moscow life felt very Russian, and it seems like he at least did his research. I’d imagine that it’s hard for a non-Russian to give a novel a Russian flavor, so props to him.
That being said, much of the book recounts Arkady’s interactions with Americans, and for some reason these characters feel less right to me. There’s Arkady’s primary suspect, a Mr. Osbourne, who seems to have connections to the KGB; an NYPD detective named Kirwill; and several other Americans, most of whom Arkady distrusts. These characters, and America in general, are painted with a negative light as well, suggesting some sort of equivalence between the American and Soviet systems, which I didn’t quite buy. However, this might’ve been a result of the noir-ish tone, which is kind of a must for this type of book.
Though I liked Gorky Park and enjoyed reading it, I do feel a bit disappointed by it. Cheated, almost. I feel like Smith had so much to work with, and basically blew it. Throughout the book, Arkady and the reader are trying to figure out what it’s all about, why people were murdered, who’s covering up for whom, and all that jazz. When we actually find out what it’s all about, it’s kind of lame, kind of meh. I’m not saying I need some Tom Clancy plotline where there’s a threat of nuclear holocaust, but I think the book does seem a bit small in the end. The first three quarters of the book are tense and interesting, but I felt like Smith kind of lost some steam. Maybe it should’ve been 100 pages shorter. Who’s to say.
Overall, I did like Gorky Park a lot, and it was certainly an interesting portrayal of Moscow before the collapse of the Soviet Union. I just felt let down by the final act.