Google ‘best spy novels’ and Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park (1981) will invariably be on the list, so it was high time that I checked it out. The novel is set in Moscow, where three mutilated, faceless bodies are uncovered in the city’s Gorky Park. Our chief protagonist is one of Moscow’s finest, Arkady Renko, who is tasked with identifying the corpses and finding the murderer. Renko’s investigation is frustrated from the outset, by corrupt colleagues, the KGB and by person or persons unknown, leading Renko to suspect that the culprit is being protected by powerful allies. Not only is Arkady battling the system, he’s also battling on the personal front; his marriage is on a downward spiral and he is falling short of party expectations, having been born into the elite with a famous general for a father.
If this sounds like a recipe for complexity and chicanery you’d be right. Over the 434 pages of the novel, I spent much of it wondering what was going on. I don’t mind this and in many respects it’s par for the course as the novel serves up its corresponding share of twists and turns. Despite the slow start, Cruz Smith also does a fine job at conjuring up Soviet era Moscow, with its seemingly drab and dispiriting existence. As for Arkady himself, Cruz Smith does a good job at drawing a believable character, albeit one that is again par for the course; brilliant yet flawed.
While Gorky Park has enough skulduggery to shake a stick at it’s not really a spy novel. What Cruz Smith serves up is more along the lines of a crime thriller, albeit set in Moscow. While there is a US-Soviet dimension to the book, it’s not of the spy variety. So if you were thinking that this book might resemble TV’s The Americans you’ll be in for disappointment.
Writing this blog I am reminded of Tom Rob Smith’s 2009 novel, Child 44. Rob Smith was clearly influenced by Cruz Smith and while quite different novels in terms of subject matter and era (Child 44 is set in the 1950s), if you’re after a crime novel set in Russia, I’d go for Child 44.