AMONG THE MANY VERY GOOD qualities of Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, the best is its sense of place. From the opening page discovery of three mutilated bodies in a popular Moscow amusement park to the novel's climax on (of all places) Staten Island, the tension is palpable in every scene.
More perhaps than any other recent work of American fiction, this one conveys a feeling for the Soviet Union, its capital, its moods and its people -- which is all the more remarkable because Smith spent a total of two weeks in Moscow in 1973 and was denied a visa when he tried to go back. He manages, nonetheless, to portray cops, robbers, suspects and victims with an uncanny authenticity. I spent weeks hanging around Soviet courtrooms and in Smith's portrayals, I smell the musty aroma; I can see the faces; I can hear the voices.
Most novels about the Soviets tend to caricature them into sinister stick figures: spies, dissidents, generals, political commissars. Not this one. The hero, homocide investigator Arkady Renko is, in his way, a Russian-style Sam Spade, skilled yet vulnerable, solitary yet capable of love. Humphrey Bogart would have been a natural for a film of the book.
The point is that Gorky Park is not at all a conventional thriller about Russians. It is to ordinary suspense stories what John Le Carre is to spy novels. The action is gritty, the plot complicated, the overriding quality is intelligence. You have to pay attention or you'll get hopelessly muddled. But staying with this book is easy enough since once one gets going, one doesn't want to stop.
For Smith, Gorky Park is destined to be his first big book. He has had four others published and spent eight years on this one. Nothing about his background would indicate any special affinity for the U.S.S.R. His mother is a Pueblo Indian. His other words dealt with gypsies and espionage in the Vatican. But something about those two weeks he spent in Moscow nearly a decade ago clearly weeks he spent in Moscow nearly a decade ago clearly penetrated his soul.
For a foreigner to capture the look of a place is not so surprising. But to dope out the peculiar nature of its approach to crime, now that takes some insight.
"In three years as a deputy investigator and two as a chief investigator," Renko thinks to himself at the outset of his probe into the murders, "he'd encountered fewer than five homicides that rose above childlike stupidity, or following which the murderer hadn't presented himself or herself to the militia drunkenly, boastful or rueful. The Russian murderer had great faith in the inevitability of his capture, all he wanted was his moment onstage.Russians won wars because they threw themselves before tanks, which was not the right mentality for a master criminal."
Yes. Yes. Crime in Russia is different from ours. The overwhelming percentage of violent crimes, for instance, are traceable solely to alcohol. People steal less from one another and more from the state, mainly because private things worth having are scarce. A fellow would have to be pretty desperate to mug another comrade for a few rubles.
Evoking corruption is a subtle business too. Among Soviets, privileges are doled out according to reliability and station, not merely for dough. The system deludes itself about being egalitarian when, in fact, perquisites are as good as gold. As an ordinary police investigator, Renko stands well beneath his counterparts in the KGB, whose presence always signifies higher stakes.
What deepens the mystery of Gorky Park is that the KGB and its annointed functionaries seem to be involved in the case but why and how comes out slowly.
There is no reason to spin out the intricacies of the plot here. Sufficient to report, that the murders are motivated by a greed that no one coming to this book would readily predict. The choice of villains should tickle readers who prefer not to see every Soviet-American encounter end predictably with the trench-coated American downing a bourbon and branch water after the subdued (or eliminated) SMERSH agent gets his just dessets. There is enough villainy in Gorky Park to be shared all around.
The ingeniousness of the investigation will appeal to suspense fans most of all. Apparently, Smith's idea for the book began with a fascination for the Soviet police technique of reconstructing faces in particularly difficult matters of criminal indentification. And since the three bodies in Gorky Park have had their faces removed, that is no mean trick in this case.
I suspect Gorky Park would appeal enormously to Soviet readers who enjoy a good yarn as much as anybody but rarely get sophisticated crime fiction. A few years ago, a film about an ex-convict caused a sensation among Soviets because of its admissions of social malevolence.
The problem for the Kremlin with Gorky Park is its unflattering characterizations of many aspects of Soviet life. Still, what could be more appealing than a genuine Soviet hero like Arkady Renko in an American book? The odds, nevertheless, are very long that Gorky Park will ever make the Moscow best-seller list -- as it almost certainly will make the best-seller lists here.
Too bad for the Soviets. In Gorky Park and Martin Cruz Smith, score another plus for our side.