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Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith

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Arcady Renko is chief investigator in the Moscow prosecutor’s office – an ordinary homicide detective, rather than a member of the KGB. He is by nature and circumstance an outsider; he views the tortuous and corrupt bureaucracy around him with wry contempt. He is not actively a political dissident, but holds values about truth and decency that have already put him on a collision course with his superiors. He doesn’t accept that ‘from the correct point of view, there are no contradictions’ in the Soviet state.

Three mutilated bodies are found frozen in Gorky Park. Renko begins an investigation, certain that a case which looks like a professional execution will be taken over by the KGB. Much to his uneasy surprise, not only is he left in charge, but the KGB prove helpful. What is going on? Renko’s determination to answer this question leads him into a world of deception, corruption, violence and betrayal. It is a complex, but ultimately very satisfying plot.

Though grim, the book is not without comedy. Renko is equal to living in a world where everything can have a different meaning. When asked by a superior what the chances are of an early resolution of the case, he replies: ‘With one of the world’s finest militia and the support of the people, I feel confident we will succeed in identifying and apprehending the guilty parties’. Both know this is code for ‘no chance at all’. The difference between what is said and what is understood, between what is promised and what is done makes Arcady’s whole world shifting and uncertain, and at times darkly humourous.

As a detective, Renko does not fit comfortably into either the police procedural or the private investigator mould. He has at his disposal the procedures and technologies available to a modern police force. But while these help establish the facts of the case, facts alone are ultimately of little help in reaching a resolution. The truth can only be found hidden behind the power and corruption which are inherent in the system within which he works, and against which he has little capacity to act. His modus operandi has to be that of the private detective – to question, confront and provoke reactions which in turn move forward his understanding of the crime, though at considerable cost to his safety.

While Cruz Smith is highly critical of the Soviet system, Gorky Park is certainly not a standard anti communist cold war thriller. For one thing, it is much better written. A whole cast of beautifully drawn characters present a picture far more nuanced and subtle than the usual black and white representation. Arcady may be the eternal outsider, but he is a very Russian outsider, with no great respect for the West. Nor does it now seem old fashioned; it is simply an absorbing and convincing picture of Russia at that time.

Gorky Park won the 1981 Gold Dagger Award given by the UK Crime Writers’ Association for the best crime novel of the year. This is an honour, but I think the book transcends its genre.

November 14th, 2010 whatbooktoread.com