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Play It Again, Comrade

  • Nov 18, 2010

A key problem with genre fiction is its demands for pacing, fast action, and formulaic convention often hamper an author's attempt at distinctive writing. Many successful genre writers solve this issue by writing as blandly as possible. "Gorky Park" shows that genre writing can be as great as an author is willing to make it.

Like any good police procedural, the story opens at the scene of the crime, the park of the title, in the heart of then-Soviet Moscow, circa 1977. Three bodies lie uncovered by melting snow, their faces and fingers sheared off. Police detective Arkady Renko takes the case fully conscious these are probably "enemies of the state" executed by the KGB, and that he will be pulled from the case as soon as he threatens any progress. Just to get the early reprieve, he works the case hard. Then two things strange happen. First, his boss tells him to keep at his investigation and never mind the KGB. Second, he begins to really care about solving it.

When "Gorky Park" came out in 1981, it was a huge bestseller and critical fave. Much of this I think had to do with the novelty of the setting, the Soviet Union. Author Martin Cruz Smith fills his pages with a Mother Russia so bleak and real you can feel the cheap vodka curdling your guts, and this offered a unique peak at America's chief globo-political adversary at the time.

The first time I read "Gorky Park", I was still in high school. Reading it as a genre detective story, I found it downbeat and hard to follow. Picking it up again was a triumph for hope over experience. I was blown away by the result.

Smith's descriptive mastery of place and character was even better than I remembered. But more powerful still for me was how good this book really was, both as a sophisticated fiction of deep and convoluted feelings and as a really clever mystery thriller that, for a minimum of reader effort, engages you on so many levels.

There's Renko himself, whose ambiguous feelings regarding the order he protects allows Smith not only to explore heady philosophical questions but keep you guessing as to what is going to hit him next. There are wide conspiracies, shifting enemies, and corruptions big and small. There's the enigma of a woman at the heart of the case whose prefers being told lies "if the truth is you'll never escape".

And then there's John Osborne, Renko's apparent opposite number as the story develops, an American who seems comfortable straddling the worlds of capitalism and communism. "If money could grow bones and flesh it would be Osborne," Smith writes. "It would wear the same cashmere suit; it would part its silver hair the same way; it would have the same lean mask with its expression of superior amusement."

There's even humor to be found here, though it took me a second reading to find it as it is written in the same snow-gray manner as the rest of the book. The matter of Renko's wife is a kind of heavy comic underscoring of the central storyline, especially as she pushes her heartless "Young Pioneer" manner against him as an act of State devotion. Everything about the Soviet Union seems to conspire against Renko, which makes his sense of lingering attachment to country more compelling.

I'm not the least attached or nostalgic for the USSR, even in Beatles songs. But "Gorky Park" pushes past my biases and makes me care about one man's ability to hold that faith, not to mention keep turning pages through some of the hardest-to-remember proper nouns I've come across since Dostoyevsky. Its setting may be gone with the times, but the pull of "Gorky Park" is timeless.

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Bill Slocum ()
Ranked #299
Reading is my way of eavesdropping on a thousand conversations, meeting hundreds of new and fascinating people, and discovering what it is about the world I enjoy most. Only after a while, I lose track … more
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"Brilliant...One of the best books of the season."
A triple murder in a Moscow amusement center: three corpses found frozen in the snow, faces and fingers missing. Chief homicide investigator Arkady Renko is brilliant, sensitive, honest, and cynical about everything except his profession. To identify the victims and uncover the truth, he must battle the KGB, FBI, and New York police as he performs the impossible--and tries to stay alive doing it.
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ISBN-10: 0345298349
ISBN-13: 978-0345298348
Publisher: Ballantine Books; Ballantine Mass Market Edition edition
Date Published: February 12, 1982

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"Play It Again, Comrade"
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