‘I just wanted you to know exactly where you stood. You’re not here legally. You’re not here illegally either, because then you’d have a leg to stand on. You’re simply not here at all, and there’s no way you can prove otherwise. I know it’s insane, but that’s the law for you […] If you have any complaints, you should take them up with the KGB.
‘Will I see the KGB?’
‘Not if I can help it.’
Arkady Renko is a hard-working and respected Moscow militiaman who finds his world falling apart in this Cold War novel which made the CWA’s top 100 list (and was filmed in 1983 with William Hurt as Renko and Lee Marvin as Jack Osborne).
The book opens at a frozen crime scene in Moscow’s Gorky Park. Three bodies are illuminated by a police photographer’s camera flashes. But are they merely ice skaters who froze to death sharing a bottle of vodka? As the ice clears it soon becomes obvious they have been shot.
Militiaman Renko spends the first part of the book trying to prove that the bodies are from outside the Soviet Union and are therefore a case for his old adversary Major Pribluda of the KGB. He wants nothing to do with them – his instincts tell him something political is going on. And he is right.
If you like Len Deighton, this book is probably for you. The paranoia sets in at the very beginning, when the question of jurisdiction (Are the three bodies foreigners or Russian? A KGB case or one for the militia?) makes a terrible crime a sticky problem.
‘Someday this will be you.’ Pribluda pointed to the nearest body.
Arkady wasn’t sure he’d heard the man correctly. Bits of ice glimmered in the air. He couldn’t have said that, he decided.
Then the story proceeds in ever more Deightonesque circles, with everyone playing their own game, and various dirty tricks comfortably explained away but then revealed as quite another set of dirty tricks. We’re not sure which side is which, and that extends even to Renko’s personal life – he has fallen out of love with his gymnast wife and into love with the convenient, beautiful and disarmingly frank Irina, who I wouldn’t trust if I were in a Cold War novel.
The book is full of contradictions and absurdities.
‘I will give you a concise history of our Revolution. Once a man indulges himself in murder, in time he thinks nothing of robbing, and from robbing he comes next to foul language and atheism, and from these to opening doors without knocking.’
A deaf woman plays records. KGB men are assigned the investigation into murders they probably committed themselves. People go missing in a state where everybody watches everyone else. Renko becomes firm friends with someone who is supposed to kill him. A psychotic New York cop proves an unlikely ally.
‘Fifty men questioning anyone who’s been in the park this winter. Asking once, twice, three times. stories in the newspapers, and a special police telephone line announced on television.’
‘What wonderful ideas,’ Arkady said. ‘If I’m ever in New York I’ll try them.’
And an American plutocrat is one of the most influential people in Communist Russia. Jack Osborne is a millionaire fur dealer with friends in all the right places in Moscow, and Renko is rightfully suspicious. Once committed to the hunt, Renko goes to extraordinary lengths to get his man and demonstrates the dogged determination and loyalty of heroic investigators everywhere.
Gorky Park reads like a one-shot, so I was surprised to find that Renko appears in eight novels.
Martin Cruz Smith
First published in the US by Random House
This edition 1981, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd