This book, set in late the 1970s Soviet Union and published in 1981, marks the time of my teenaged years, a time when my personal interest in the Russians began to grow (leading to a long stint in graduate school and a PhD in Russian/Soviet history). Gorky Park was made into a movie (which I never saw) and Martin Cruz Smith went on to write a number of Arkady Renko detective/thriller novels. I think I might have read one of them (Red Square) but I guess it didn’t grab me because I never read any others. I have to say that Gorky Park now seems a bit dated. I can see why it was so popular back in the days of the Cold War, before the USSR became “the former Soviet Union.” Communist Russia and the Russians were enigmatic, living under a closed, restrictive, politically oppressive regime (I guess that’s not so different from today). Anything that tried to imagine life there, particularly the lives of ordinary folk caught up in the tangled web of the Communist Party and the Soviet State, would’ve been an attention grabber to Westerners whose only knowledge of such things came from dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn and Baryshnikov. As detective novels go, this one is OK, but I found it to be hobbled by the author’s desire to bring a lot of complicated plot threads into play and by an assumption that the reader would know a little something about the politics of the USSR circa 1980. Modern day readers might find it confusing.
Arkady Renko is the 30-something chief detective for Moscow. He is known for being a thorough investigator, which makes him respected and hated by powerful men, including a KGB officer named Major Pribluda. Renko is a member of the police/militia, not the KGB (which is the state political police), and we learn immediately that the lines between police investigations and KGB investigations can overlap and get tense, as they have in the past for Renko and Pribluda. Their past interactions are teased out later in the novel, and I actually found the relationship between these two characters to be quite interesting; I’d have liked more Pribluda in this story. Anyway, the story opens in early April, with the discovery of three faceless bodies in Gorky Park. The long Russian winter has kept the corpses hidden for who knows how long, and both Renko and Pribluda are on the scene. Renko expects that eventually the KGB will take over the case, especially when he discovers that one of the victims is a foreigner, an American. He is hoping this will happen sooner rather than later, but, oddly, the KGB seems content to let Renko do the detective work here. As he learns more about the victims, using his rather unorthodox methods of detection, Renko finds himself drawn into an extraordinarily dangerous situation for himself, his underlings, and those closest to him.
Renko’s situation is complicated by a number of factors. Both his wife and his father — a Soviet WWII hero — find Arkady a disappointment and say so to his face. One of his underlings is a KGB plant. Renko, although a member of the Communist Party (required for any kind of important work and for advancement through the ranks), doesn’t jump through the hoops as one would expect. He rarely shows up a meetings and is beginning to stand out for it. His boss, the Moscow Prosecutor Iamskoy, is sort of a father figure who drops hints about this problem. Renko also finds himself drawn to a beautiful young woman named Irina who knew all three of the victims but refuses to help Renko. As the investigation progresses, Renko and his team have to deal with icon theft and forgery, a powerful American furrier named Osborne, and a rogue American detective named Kirwell. Evidence is stolen, Renko and his men are targeted, and time is running out as Renko’s number one suspect seems on the cusp of getting away with more than three murders.
I don’t read a lot of detective thriller novels, so perhaps I’m not the best judge but this one left me unsatisfied. As mentioned above, there is a lot going on here plot-wise. There were times when I found myself very interested in the mystery of the murders and the motive for them, and there were times when I felt mired in detail. The plot and Renko go all over the place, and when the resolution comes, it feels quite abrupt and not completely satisfactory. I think there were just too many threads to try to resolve and make fit together. Renko as a character felt a bit flat to me. The reader knows very little of his personal history. He doesn’t have strong political opinions or even much in the way of emotion. His wife’s disgust with him is kind of understandable. We are supposed to believe that he is both a skilled investigator and at times a naive dupe. He didn’t feel real to me.
Gorky Park was a reminder of the Soviet Russia from my youth — the secretive, little understood, dangerous enemy of the US; a land of long winters, Siberian exile, and icons. Studying Russia and the Russians was considered a big deal back then because it was so hard to do. Very few foreign students were allowed to travel there to study, and tourism was restricted as well. I find it unbelievable that we now have a government that does not take the Russian threat seriously, with both the President and members of Congress sucking up to Putin. Ronald Reagan must be rolling in his grave.