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This book was published in 1981 and is set in 1977 at a time when the cold war was at its height and little was known about the internal policing of the Soviet Union. What a great place, then to set a detective novel.

 

The first third of the book appears to be a conventional detective novel involving the investigation into the murder of three bodies found in Gorky Park. Arkady Renko, a chief investigator with the Moscow militia is assigned to the case and his investigations lead him to discover the murderer.

 

Upon this discovery and Renko's confrontation with the murder, the novel could have ended and it could be considered to be one of the finest crime novels written. However, Martin Cruz Smith takes things further.

 

After a short interlude of some 26 pages; the location shifts to New York and an attempt to recover the good stolen by the murder, and the reason for the murders. The twists introduced at this late stage and the exploration of motives is brilliant and lists this book from merely great to brilliant.

 

*****

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I agree. I saw the film first (which I love and use to watch over and over again) and then read the book which was, if anything, even better. It's a pacy, plot driven psychological thriller - but with huge dollops of politics heaped on top. It was the first film/book I had read that seemed to consider everyday life in the USSR rather than just looking at spies and dissidents. I also enjoyed Polar Star, the sequel, although it felt slightly more contrived than Gorky Park.

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Martin Cruz Smith is my favorite mystery novelist. I say novelist because I think he aspires to more than simply writing. He is a top-notch Russia watcher, and has had a couple of Russia-themed articles published in National Geographic in the past few years.

 

I, too, saw the movie before reading this wonderful novel. The only other novel I can compare it to is Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, as both delve much more deeply into character and society than any other mystery novels I've read--save, perhaps, the espionage novels of John le Carré, the grandmaster himself. Both Gorky Park and Presumed Innocent offer thrills, complexity, and a great deal of knowledge into their respective topics.

 

The difference between Gorky Park and Smith's other Arkady Renko novels is the the overall length and the prose, both becoming shorter and leaner in subsequent novels. I also think the characterization gets pared down as well. Of the rest of the novels in the series, I liked Havana Bay the best, followed by Wolves Eat Dogs, Polar Star, and then Red Square. I just read Stalin's Ghost (<- link) a few months ago, but that is by far the worst in the series.

 

If you liked Gorky Park and want to try something else by Smith, I think Rose (<- link), while slightly different, is his other masterpiece.

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Two men and a woman are found dead in the snow in Gorky Park, Moscow. Their faces and fingers have been removed and the men shot to prevent dental identification. Moscow militia Chief Investigator Arkady Renko doesn't really want the case and wants to hand it over to the KGB, even though he doesn't trust them, especially Major Pribluda who turns up at the murder scene.

 

When he discovers one of the dead is not a Soviet citizen but an American, he seems to have found his excuse. But his boss Iamskoy seems especially keen to keep the investigation going even though he's assigned a men to Arkady's team who appears to be a KGB informer. In the background, Arkady's marriage to a Party loyalist is collapsing, the blow softened when he meets an actress, Irina Asanova, after discovering the dead woman was wearing Irina's skates. What's her connection to the murder victims and to the American businessman Osborne, to whom Arkady is introduced in a KGB bathhouse by Iamskoy?

 

The ingredients of a good thriller are there - grisly murders, a loner down-at-heel investigator with woman trouble who doesn't do things by the book, chase sequences, evil foreign bad guys, shadowy sinister spies serving their own interests - all present and correct. Cruz Smith has gone to great lengths to give the feel of paranoia and good Cold War novel should have, plus portraying Arkady's endless frustrations with Soviet bureaucracy.

 

However, I found "Gorky Park" disappointing overall. It all felt a little formulaic to me, plus which I couldn't quite follow Arkady's thought processes and how he made his steps forward in the case, crucial, I think, to a novel of this type. That might just be me, though. I have had the same problem with the John Le Carré novels I've read.

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I couldn't quite follow Arkady's thought processes and how he made his steps forward in the case, crucial, I think, to a novel of this type.
That is what I like about the Renko novels. It always takes me a while to catch up with Renko.

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I think he is a great crime writer.

 

Not only are his crime plots good but he also expands his characters and introduces a social and economic context into what he writes.

 

One of the few crime writers where I buy the books as soon as they are released in hardback. The other must buy authors I also buy are Michael Connelley and James Lee Burke.

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