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Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

By Ana C. | Books | February 1, 2011 |

By Ana C. | Books | February 1, 2011 |

Gorky Park is a murder mystery set in Brezhnev’s USSR. The titular Gorky Park is a real park in Moscow, where three corpses are discovered one spring. They’ve been shot and mutilated so as to preclude easy identification and, as it turns out, they’ve been hidden under the snow for several months. Chief investigator Arkady Renko is assigned to the case.

Renko is a man born to the nomeklatura, who rejects the advantages conferred on him by parentage. For reasons that remain sketchy (although I guess his father does seem like an asshole of the first water), he’s extremely skeptical of bureaucracy, which in his experience always devolves into rule by lowest common denominator. He abhors the amount of hypocrisy he’s expected to spout, so while backstabbing apparatchik flourish, Renko’s career has stalled.

Renko’s insistence on the primacy of truth is his tragic flaw, and the closer he gets to solving a case no one wants solved, the more it costs him, personally. Still he persists. Renko is in no danger of going down as one of literature’s phenomenal detectives; every revelation feels deeply earned and he goes down more wrong tracks than right ones. The mystery itself is involving and complicated enough that unraveling motivations is as interesting as figuring out what actually happened. I’m not going to spoil things by going into specifics like Wikipedia (thanks a lot, guy who gave away the end of the book in the character description, when all I wanted was to remember Recurring Marginal Character #347), but suffice it to say that in communist Russia, the mystery solves you.

(Nyet! YOU are more tired that Britney Spears’s weave. Whatever, let’s not fight.)

Reading this is in 2010, it feels like a time-capsule: a glimpse into the paranoia, disorientation, and disillusionment that dominated the Soviet 1980s. Cruz Smith has a lot to say about police states in general, but he never makes the mistake of letting it shape his story, and the picture he paints of Moscow is full of vivid detail, idiosyncrasy, and even affection. Here are shabby offices, dim apartments, cheap cigarettes, bad marriages, and Russian cold so vividly evoked that I kept wanting to crawl under a blanket.

Which is why it’s so unfortunate that the story goes totally off the rails about two-thirds of the way through. There’s a location change (to the USA!), which really took the zip out of the story. His descriptions of NY don’t live up to what he does with Moscow (of course, I’ve never been to Moscow, so maybe that’s the difference). And the ultimate answer to the mystery, when it comes, is sort of disappointing. Still, worth a read if you’re curious about the later Soviet era.

For more of Ana C.’s reviews, check out her blog, The Sugar-Coated Review.

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