Arkady Renko is an honest man. But he lives in a place at a time when honest men just don’t fit. As a chief investigator for the prosecutor general of Moscow in the late 1970s, Renko is surrounded by careerists, villains, thieves, murderers, psychopaths, and schemers. While everyone is looking out for themselves, Renko stubbornly pursues the truth—no matter who it pisses off. Though when Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park opens, Renko is doing everything he can to pass along a case of three murder victims to the KGB.
The KGB really should have this case. Not only are there hints that the victims were involved in some kind of illicit trading, one of the victims has American dental work. And yet, Renko’s boss, prosecutor general Andrei Iamskoy, will not let the cup pass from the investigator. Renko reluctantly starts by trying to identify the victims, hampered by a junior investigator who Renko knows is his own personal watcher from the KGB. While the watcher is sent on time-consuming errands, Renko uncovers layer after layer of conspiracy and greed. The three people found murdered and frozen in Moscow’s Gorky Park are just the tip of the iceberg.
Before long, Renko knows who is responsible for the murders—he just can’t prove it. Evidence keeps disappearing. His other junior investigator is murdered along with a key witness. The murderer is protected from on high and Renko refuses all advice to let the case go. His friends encourage him to let it go. His soon-to-be-ex-wife wants him to let it go. Everyone wants him to let it go, but Renko resists at every turn.
I honestly thought Gorky Park was going to wrap up during a big confrontation with the murderer and his cadre of protectors and co-conspirators. In another other thriller or mystery, the showdown would be the end. There might be an epilogue tacked on the end if the protagonist was injured or the author wanted the reader to know just a little bit more. But that’s not what happens in Gorky Park. Instead, we get an entire third act that takes Renko’s investigation to new heights.
It’s not just this third act that sets Gorky Park apart from other examples of its genres. The narrative has a literary style that gives it depth. Throughout the book, characters comment on Renko’s honesty and the book as a whole is a commentary on how honesty puts a good man into dilemma after dilemma. The book also ruminates on the pre-perestroika Soviet experience. In the late 1970s, people were still arrested and sent to gulags for political crimes; but less than 15 years after the events of Gorky Park, the whole Russian Soviet experiment would be over. The characters tell each other Soviet fables that illustrate the absurdity of their society and government or highlight the dangers of sticking one’s neck out for others.
Gorky Park was originally published in 1981. The series continues to this day and the latest book in the series, Tatiana, was published just two years ago. Unlike other 33-year-old mystery/thriller series, there are only eight books in the series. (Most authors in the genre churn out books almost annually.) Something about Arkady Renko weathers changes in readers’ tastes. I hope that the rest of the books in the series continue to astonish me, because I am definitely hooked.