Rating: 3 & ½ Stars
Martin Cruz Smith’s ‘Gorky Park’ was a best-seller when it was first published in 1981, and had critics hailing the writer as America’s answer to John LeCarré. While the author may not have intended the book as a historical mystery, thirty years since its publication and after the dissolution of the former U.S.S.R., it can perhaps be qualified as such today.
Arkady Renko, Senior Homicide Investigator of the Soviet militia is assigned to solve the mystery of three frozen bodies found in Gorky Park. Renko, suspecting the involvement of the KGB and its sinister agent, Major Pribluda, is unenthusiastic about a case that seems certain to be headed to a dead end. Despite his reluctance, he’s drawn further into the murders that have seemingly inexplicable international connections, and increasingly point to corruption and treachery at the highest levels.
Though the latter half of the book seems to drag on for far longer than necessary, Smith does successfully engross the reader's attention for the most part. There may be suggestions of homicidal maniacs on the loose, but in the end, the motives are coldly practical, and the plot’s sense of urgency intensifies till it reaches its crescendo. Apparently, MCS engaged in seven years of research to complete this novel, and very often his style is dazzling, so subtly does his Soviet Union get under our skin.
The author’s Russia pre-dated Gorbachev’s perestroika, and highlights the slippery terrain Renko has to navigate. Smith’s portrayals irked the U.S.S.R enough to list him as a ‘dangerous agent provocateur’. There are disturbing vignettes of people being tortured for trivialities, efficiency-stifling bureaucracy, and women practicing clandestine birth-control and serial abortions in a nation where government fiats demand patriotic procreation. Renko, like so many of his fellow countrymen can neither criticize nor condone the misgoverning of his country.
One appeal of this book is the character of the chain-smoking Arkady Renko withering in a loveless marriage that’s grown on him like yet another bad habit, and helplessly attracted to a woman who might very well be the end of him. He’s seen enough of violence and brutality without letting it contaminate his own character; and though he’s prudent enough to be a card-carrying party member, he has too much integrity to ingratiate himself to further his career.
The government’s anti-capitalist propaganda is in sharp contrast to the rampant black-marketing and the hungry consumerism of the population. In contrast to Arkady, his best friend, Misha, is venal, yet likable. He doesn’t hesitate to play the system and keep his own life as comfortably afloat as he can - a state of affairs where some are definitely more equal than others.