Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (Shane's book 8, 2011)

This is the first of a series of Smith's novels to feature the Russian detective Arkady Renko. When we meet him he is already a chief investigator and one who has a reputation as both an exceptional detective and a trouble-maker who is not afraid to expose corruption among the influential. [amtap book:isbn=0330448889]

We meet him in the middle of the night on his arrival in Moscow's Gorky Park. Three bodies have been found in the snow, their faces mutilated and their fingertips cut off to prevent them being identified. Though he initially hopes to pass the case on to the KGB, Renko quickly becomes intrigued. As he works to uncover the identities of the victims and trace their killer, Renko uncovers a smuggling ring with links to rich foreigners and powerful figures within Soviet Russia. Eventually the investigation leads him to New York, which he finds to be just as corrupt as his native Russia.

On its release in 1981 Gorky Park was a bestseller. In setting his story in Soviet Russia, Smith took his readers into a society that most of them will have found unfamiliar and threatening. Corruption is systemic and provides an ideal backdrop against which the principled detective can make his stand. Smith's Moscow feels authentic: it's gloomy, forbidding and rundown.

However, aside from the Soviet trappings this is a very conventional detective thriller. Renko is the stereotypical put upon detective; his marriage is in jeopardy thanks to his devotion to his job and when he begins to get close to the powerful forces behind the murders his bosses take him off the case.

Smith keeps the pace of the writing high and pares down his descriptions so that the book feels much shorter than it is. (It's almost 600 pages in my edition, despite Amazon's claim that it's about half that.) It reads like it was written for the screen, particularly the final showdown, and the film version was made in 1983.

This is worth reading as a snapshot of the Cold War and Russia buffs will love it but as a detective thriller it offers little to surprise.