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 …