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Classic review: Gorky Park

"Gorky Park" is a thriller that grapples with one man's search for meaning.

By Karen Steinberg / November 15, 2009



[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Apr. 13, 1981.] Suspense novels can either be cut-and-dried thrillers, or they can strike deeper chords through the interweaving of universal themes and concerns with plot. Gorky Park, the most recent work by Martin Cruz Smith, belongs to the latter category of espionage novels.

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While the story that unfolds in "Gorky Park" provides enough intricacy and suspense for the most demanding aficionado, it is not primarily details of plot that engage our attention. Rather, within the context of this specialized genre , Martin Cruz Smith has succeeded in rendering very believable, realistic, and gripping portrayals of certain segments of Soviet society and of one man's search for meaning.

The tale revolves around the discovery of three murdered and mutilated bodies in Moscow's Gorky Park. The crime is no ordinary homicide; from the beginning, there are indications that this may be a matter connected with state security.

Yet Arkady Renko, chief investigator of the Moscow town prosecutor's office, virtually has the case dumped in his lap by Major Pribluda of the KGB (Committee for State Security). The KGB seems determined to avoid taking over the investigation, and Arkady is forced to ferret out the killer as best he can. Spurred on by the possibility of an illicit icon trade and KGB involvement, Arkady discovers that the more he learns, the more confused and pointless the murders seem to be. Given more and more rope by the KGB, he finds himself involved in an increasingly complex and sinister web of intrigue.

Arkady's search for the meaning behind the murders is paralleled by a quest for meaning in his own life. At one point he wonders, "Was he a chief investigator or a processor of the dead, an adjunct of the morgue . . .?" The frustrations inherent in Soviet society, and particularly in the lives of Soviet citizens who are not "good" party members, oppress Arkady. His oppression is echoed in the words of a woman he meets during the course of the investigation when she bitterly remarks, "We're bornm dead."

Certain scenes in the novel are particularly nicely done: A cat-and-mouse conversation between Arkady and his prime suspect is strongly reminiscent of the verbal sparring between Raskolnikov and police inspector Porfiry Petrovich in Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment."

While numerous gruesome details make this novel unsuited to the fainthearted, "Gorky Park" has much to recommend it. Far more than a mere espionage novel, "Gorky Park" is a vivid depiction of one man's stru ggle for meaning and truth within the Soviet system.

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