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Back in the USSR
on 6 April 2009
Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is easy to forget that there was a time when Russia was considered a frighteningly futuristic society: organised, disciplined, crimeless and technologically advanced. We have become used to regarding the post-soviet Russia as a country travelling backwards, characterised by territorial disintegration, (dis)organised crime, shortening population lifespan and economic failure. President Putin has reversed this trend somewhat, but it takes time to shake a reputation, and reading Gorky Park today is like stepping into a lost world.
In Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith takes the classic Raymond Chandler detective thriller and transposes it into the USSR of the early 1980s. Three bodies are found in a Moscow Park, the bodies have been mutilated to hide their identities, and Militia investigator Arkady Renko is given the task to finding the killer. The regular Chandler stereotypes all make an appearance: the femme fatale, the false friends and the bogeymen. The plot moves quickly and unexpectedly. Smith's depiction of the USSR is vivid and convincing, a fascinating world of paranoia, informers, state ideology and bureaucratic conflict. The unusual context puts an intriguing accent onto the standard detective thriller - this is a world where the investigator has one eye on the crime and another on abiding to communist party politics and ideology.
Smith writes excellent entertainment fiction, building suspense gradually and crafting an exciting and engaging story. My only criticism is that he seems unsure of how and when the end the story, and the overextended plot developments at the end somewhat stretch the novel's credibility. The final part of the novel seems unnecessary. The decision taken by Renko at the conclusion of the novel seemed to me, well, disappointingly ridiculous. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.
As a fun thriller, Gorky Park is worth revisiting. It occurs to me that Robert Harris's novel Fatherland owes a strong influence to Gorky Park, but Smith is a better writer.