If, as Auden suggested, the ideal detective-story reader desires an unchanging fictional world in which the same problem is endlessly repeated with minor variations, the ideal reader of a thriller demands almost the opposite, a fix of continuous novelty. The agent becomes over the years double, triple, multiple; he is numbered 007 and licensed to kill. History is invoked and turned on its head as Churchill meets Hitler secretly in Len Deighton. A whole mythology of agency terms is invented to add verisimilitude to John le Carré’s spy “Circus.” Novelty is provided in Gorky Park by offering a Russian criminal investigator as hero, and Moscow as principal setting. A not very helpful map of the city is used as a frontispiece.
The novelty of this approach, and the well-publicized fact that the author spent only two weeks in the Soviet Union, are in part no doubt responsible for the book’s success. Is it also a “powerful, compassionate and original work…a strange and marvelous book…a panoramic view of Russian society today,” as readers exultantly say? Not so. Gorky Park is much above the average thriller, but almost equally far below the best of Ambler, Deighton, and le Carré.
Its outstanding virtue is the conviction with which the Moscow settings are rendered, and the assurance with which they are given to us in detail; its particular weaknesses are feeble characterization and an overindulgence in violence. The hero is stabbed (the knife penetrates colon, stomach, and diaphragm), thrown on to the rails of the Moscow Underground, spends months under interrogation in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, and in the final shoot-out, which disposes of most of the other characters, gets bullets in chest and thigh. I may have omitted one or two of his other escapes from death, but those are enough to show his near-immortality. A correction should be made also about “most of the other characters.” The shoot-out takes place on Staten Island, but a good many minor characters have already been disposed of in Moscow.
The near-immortal hero is Arkady Renko, “chief investigator” in the police arm of the MVD which “directed traffic, chased drunks and picked up everyday corpses.” The story would be more plausible if Renko were a pillar of Soviet orthodoxy, but instead he is that traditional figure, a good guy in a bad organization, with many people ready to deceive him, most hands against him. Renko has no belief in communism, and is at odds with his wife who sets divorce proceedings going during the course of the book. We realize, long before Renko does, that he is being used as a tool by those above him, but it still seems unlikely that he would have kept his position as long as he has.
Accept Renko if you can, accept what I found the jarring convention by which the Russians speak demotic American (“You going to puke?” “We haven’t screwed in months.” “You’d be a cinch to be a Central Committee Inspector”), and there is a good deal to enjoy. The narration is crisp, lively, at times amusing. There are occasional similarities to Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct stories in the mass of detail about police work, but the detail adds to the feeling of authenticity, which is enhanced by such bits of information as the news that Arkady and his wife Zoya together make three hundred roubles a month, half as much as a factory foreman. There are details about hotels, prostitutes, the Moscow Underground, the gradations of rank in the Soviet Union, and much else, and whether or not the information is exactly accurate it sounds right, and is skillfully embodied in quite naturalistic conversations.
Many of the descriptive passages are equally good. A train is leaving from Savelovsky Station (not to be found on the frontispiece map). The station is normally used by commuters, but this train is special, for it is taking laborers to work in the northern mines. Arkady, who is on the run after at last discovering how fully he has been tricked, joins them:
On the train he moved with the flow into a compartment already filled with men and the stink of sweat and onions. A dozen faces studied him. They were the same tough and homely faces as on the Politburo, but roughed up and down the street a bit. They sported bruises and unusual scars, their knuckles and collars were dirty, and they carried their possessions in bundles. Basically they were criminals, men wanted for violence or theft in one town instead of the whole country. Little fish who thought they were escaping through the holes of the great socialist net, only to be funneled into socialist mines in the north. Tough fish, urkas, brothers, hard cases, men with tattoos and knives.
There is an excellent scene in a bath house, where Soviet apparatchiks discuss the heresy of “Vronskyism” or individualism, while swallowing masses of caviar. Mr. Smith is very good at catching the tone of Soviet officialdom in, for example, a psychiatrist’s outline of the “pathoheterodoxy syndrome,” from which Arkady is found to be suffering. There are other convincing scenes, like a visit paid by Arkady to his old father, General Renko.
Return to the main plot and the all-too-plentiful action, however, and we are back in conventional thrillerland. The book’s opening is promising, with three bodies found frozen and mutilated in the deep snow of Gorky Park, and a struggle between Arkady’s MVD and the KGB for possession of them, but the interdepartmental battle soon moves into the background with the entry of a sinister American named Osborne, lean and dark, with “straight white hair and black eyes, a long nose and an almost feminine mouth…an extraordinary combination, equine and handsome.” Osborne played a heroic (or was it treacherous?) role at Leningrad during the war, he is an informer for the KGB (or is he perhaps informing on the KGB?). Either way, he is the mainspring of the plot, and plays an important and consistently villainous role right up to the end.
But no sooner has that phrase been put down on paper than one doubts its validity, because the plot requires every important figure except Arkady to be playing at least a double game. The New York cop Kirwill who attacks Arkady in Gorky Park, prosecutor Iamskoy who keeps him on the case against KGB wishes, Wesley the FBI man who looks after Arkady when he is sent to the United States, even Irina with whom the investigator falls in love, are not exactly what they seem. On several occasions Arkady expects to be killed. “Were they going to kill him in the park?” he wonders as he and Osborne walk into Central Park, with Osborne’s limousine following them.
And indeed why isn’t he killed, why does Osborne instead simply go on talking, and giving Arkady information? Why haven’t “they” already disposed of him in the psychiatric hospital, why didn’t the doctor who handed a KGB man “a needle the size used for horses” containing poison that would have killed Arkady make sure that the needle was used? For that matter, why is he released from the hospital and sent to the United States, where he finds Irina again? The general answer is that Arkady is thought still to have his uses, but he has caused so much trouble that the decision to treat him once more as a tool seems outrageously improbable.
Is one bearing down very hard on Gorky Park by treating its deficiencies so stringently? Yes, or at least perhaps. Yet although belief is often strained in spy stories and thrillers, the strains nowadays are rarely of this unsophisticated kind. Gorky Park has been acclaimed as a work of exceptional merit in its genre, and it is not that. Below its excellent realistic surface lie crudities of approach that the best thriller writers have long since abandoned. The book is not in the same league as Ambler’s masterly Doctor Frigo, Deighton’s inventive yet finely restrained SS: GB, or le Carré’s early work. There are good things in it, the writing is brisk and intelligent, no doubt it will be one of the best thrillers of the year. The rest is the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation, of the publicity department, and of those deceived by its wiles.