10/8/16: This review is a candidate for revision.
Reading Gorky Park was another misstep in my courtship with the international crime/espionage genre. I generally don’t like this type of book, but after reading the surprisingly good Child 44, I found myself searching for another Russia/USSR-oriented crime novel. I picked the wrong one.
I think the easiest and quickest way to express my thoughts on Gorky Park is to divide the review into strengths and weaknesses. I wanted the book to end as soon as possible, so why should that not extend to the review?
–The crime. The murder set up in the beginning of the story is very compelling. Three bodies are discovered frozen in the ice of Gorky Park with their faces and fingers missing. That in itself is chilling. I was actually invested in this plot thread and how Chief Investigator Arkady Renko would solve the homicide case when identification of the victims was difficult.
– The writing. Smith’s prose is oft engaging and his portrayal of Soviet life (through a Western prism, of course) is detailed. It’s not a pretty picture, but the bleakness suits the subject matter and the setting. In an American city, a murder investigation might or might not be difficult, but in Smith’s Soviet Union it is practically impossible. Seemingly everywhere Renko turns, he is interfered with, attacked, or ignored. Moscow, the KGB, and the treachery throughout Soviet society are all clearly drawn. The book is also peppered with sociological commentary condemning both America and the Soviet Union as corrupt, and it’s fairly well done. However, as sometimes it seems that Smith didn’t really want this book to be a thriller, but rather commentary on the surface-level differences between the USSR and the US and the deeper similarities between the two when it came to the extent of rot within.
–The pacing. The pacing of Gorky Park was uneven and the majority of my reading was a slog. The book is dry and slow-moving in the first third, then hits a turning point and remains compelling until a climax where Renko has confronted the murderer and a death trap aimed at both him and his girlfriend. After the climax, the book limps on for another hundred pages before building to a second, unsatisfying ending. But by far the worst issue I have with the pacing is the lack of mystery in this mystery; the lack of thrill in this thriller. The bad guy (who conveniently wears a black hat) is identified and tagged even before the halfway mark, and thereafter pops up conveniently when the plot demands. Even the twist in the tale lies uncovered at the two-thirds stage. So the denouement really takes a long time, and by the end of it I was just looking to finish the book so I could move on to a new one. The story should have stopped at the obvious ending point, with maybe a single chapter to wrap things up.
–The characterization. Some characters, like the protagonist Renko, are complex, while others are flatter than cardboard. And I did not care for any of them. Renko is calm, collected and principled to the point of being dull. He scornful of almost everyone and everything. Like many literary detectives before him, he is morose, arrogant, cynical and emotionally conflicted. His “gut feeling” approach to exposing corruption and dishonesty was a little implausible. Though it is clearly the author’s intention to make him straight-laced, I’m not sure if he wanted him to be unrealistic. But at least Renko succeeded in solving the murder…
Whereas I can somewhat appreciate Renko’s complexity, I cannot stand his “girlfriend”, the dissident Irina Asanova. She seems to have absolutely no redeeming qualities. She is shallow and self absorbed, thinking only of her escape to the US and the “freedom” that awaits her there. She is completely lacking in moral strength, as shown in the way she was able to defect. But, as is obligatory in these Cold War thrillers, she’s the love interest and is so gorgeous that even shabby clothes look good on her. Irina annoyed me so much that I actually found myself wishing something would happen to her – that she’d be betrayed or captured before she could make it to the US. Anything to get her out of the story. I was relieved when Renko chose to return to the USSR and leave her in the US.
–The love story. While the dissolution of Renko’s marriage to his wife Zoya is credible and well told, his love affair with Irina is strained and hard to believe. At times it is clear they hate each other, but then there are gratuitous sex scenes. Yes, I know the relationship is meant to be complicated – in traditional Cold War-story fashion, they are using each other for their own ends – but the on-and-off again affection irked me.
–The fluff. Part of the reason why Gorky Park seems to drag on and on may be that there is a lot unnecessary information. Characters like the NYPD cop Kirwill had backstories that didn’t seem to matter (in fact, I believe the story would’ve be fine without Kirwill) and there are even entire chapters devoted to things that don’t even help the story progress. Near the end of the book we get drawn-out sequences of Renko bonding with KGB major Pribluda over potato and mushroom gardening, or Renko thinking about his life with Irina in a New York hotel room.
–The cliches. There are a ton of them: communism (this was written during the Cold War), corruption, the KGB, defection, harsh winter, spies, the obligatory sexy Russian love interest, betrayal, vodka. If you can think of something synonymous with Russia/USSR, it’s probably in here somewhere. I was waiting for the ushanka-wearing bear to show up, but he never did. Pity.
So, that was Gorky Park. Although I was drawn by its interesting premise, I was ultimately disappointed by its messy narrative that didn’t break much new ground. Perhaps this was wildly popular back in the day, but it hasn’t aged well. Or perhaps the problem lies with me, and I am not a member of the intended audience. Or perhaps it’s really just the writing.
There are seven other books in the series. I likely won’t be reading any of them.
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith. Pub. 2007 by Pan Books. Paperback, 559 pages. ISBN13: 9780330448888