Martin Cruz Smith's murder-mystery novel Gorky Park has been dubbed a "breakthrough thriller," a "tour de force," and "startlingly original" among other things, and is often referred to as setting "a new standard in ?spy thrillers'," and pioneering "the serial-killer/travelogue subgenre"("Havana" D6, "Moscow" 7-1, "Arkady" X5, Contemporary Authors Online, "Gorky" B7). The book became a bestseller almost instantly after its release in early 1981, and critics praised Smith's convincing portrait of Cold War Moscow, as well as his main character, the Russian detective Arkady Renko. Smith was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award in 1982, and in the same year he won the Crime Writers Association's Gold Dagger award ("Season"). The book was made into a movie due to its popularity, and though it received mostly negative reviews, it did not damage the novel's reputation. Most of Gorky Park's success can be attributed to the originality of its well-written plot and to the fact that it was set in Russia during the later years of the Cold War, when people in the United States were becoming interested in the workings of a closed society slowly trying to open up. Other major factors contributing to the novel's prosperity include the immense efforts made by both the author and the publishers to get it to press, Smith's ability to write expertly about Russian society, and the fact that it was often compared to classic novels or works by prominent spy and thriller writers. All of the ingredients in Gorky Park's success story seem to point to the conclusion that bestsellers aren't always easy to read or written by famous authors, and that each is its own phenomenon.
Smith came up with the idea for Gorky Park in 1973 after reading a review of a book called The Face Finder in Newsweek. The book described the process of restoring human faces from the skeletons of murder victims, a practice only known in the Soviet Union. With this image in the back of his mind, Smith started planning his story and decided that an American cop and a Russian detective would be the main characters ("Master" F1a). He also made a brief visit to Moscow, taking in the details of each place he intended to include in the novel. In an interview with Smith in The Washington Post, Curt Suplee explained how, "after the few days in Moscow, he became interested in the challenge of making a dingy, rumpled Soviet cop his hero, and discovered that he had serious thoughts about Soviet and American societies. In the process, he began shaking off the Grub Street mind-set derived from years of writing small successes like ?Gypsy in Amber' and fast novels under fictional names." During the visit Smith also began to understand the significance of his work-in-progress, "I suddenly realized that I had something?this is the book that can set me free" ("Master" F1a).
With its highly original and complicated plot, Gorky Park took nearly eight years to complete. Smith spent many of those years struggling with his publisher in order to have the freedom to write the way he wanted to. Putnam's wanted him to keep the phrase "mass market appeal" in mind while writing Gorky Park, but Smith had plans of his own. After finally managing to buy back the book, he and his agent made a deal with Random House and Ballantine Books for the amount of one million dollars. Smith decided on this amount, and his agent Knox Burger felt confident that he would get it because of the book's exceptional quality, "My only problem was that it was too much of a novel?not junky enough to get into that big popcorn market" ("Master" F1a). Still, Smith was not a well-known author at the time, and such a large gamble said a lot about the future of Gorky Park. Even before its official release to the public, a special uncorrected edition of the book was printed and given to booksellers across the country. When the novel was released in 1981, it was sold mainly in independent bookstores, and sales were greater on the East Coast. These facts suggested that the people who were buying Gorky Park had broader interests than the devoted fans of many famous authors, whose novels usually became bestsellers the moment they hit the shelves. Therefore, Smith's breakthrough book seemed to be just that?a breakthrough. The author was basically unknown, and the story itself wasn't exactly easy reading, and to put it simply, the novel's success was quite astounding.
Beginning in the late 1970's and early 1980's, numerous thrillers and police procedural novels, as well as tales of espionage?many of them set in Russia?became popular, but Gorky Park seemed to shine more brightly than the rest because it was new and quite unique. For one thing, it's hero was a Russian and it's villain an American?an entirely new twist on the conventional formula where the American plays the good guy. However, the novel according to Robert Lekachman is, "neither automatically anti-Soviet in the style of Commentary nor anti-American in the weary manner of the aging New Left" ("Wicked" 406-07). Therefore, Americans enjoyed it, and in Russia, where the book was banned and Smith declared an enemy of the state, it "became an underground hit" ("Moscow rules"). Nor was the story merely "a Cold War tract," as Richard J. Walton states ("triple" 7-3-1-R). Arkady is not only involved in a murder mystery, but also in a love affair with Irina Asanova, and thus the book has wider appeal. Smith even says, "The point of the book was not just to show how cold and sorry Russian life was, but that there's enormous warmth in people who are survivors of the same horrible situation" ("Moscow rules"). The novel was set in Brezhnevian Moscow during the later years of the Cold War, a period which held endless possibilities for spy novelists. The "evil empire" of Russia was slowly opening up, and most people wanted to get a glimpse of it ("Spies" C2). During this time, quite a number of authors attempted to accurately depict Russian society in their novels, but relatively few succeeded. Smith, along with Stuart M. Kaminsky, whose book Death of a Dissident is often compared to Gorky Park, seemed to be among the small circle of mystery writers able to accomplish such a feat. In addition to this, both of the authors addressed some of the misconceptions people had about Soviet life in general. Gary J. Hausladen said of Gorky Park, "Again, the intriguing aspect of the novel is that this component of place breaks down many of the stereotypes Westerners had about Soviet society before the Gorbachev regime" ("Murder" 63-79). Therefore, the possibility of learning more about the so-called "evil empire" was enough to prompt people to buy these books.
Gorky Park has often been classified as a "cultural murder-mystery," meaning that its location "is such an essential element in the novel that without a sense of place the plot is needlessly enigmatic" ("Murder" 63-79). Critics and readers alike were impressed with Smith's ability to write about Moscow with such expertise and authority. Despite his accuracy of atmosphere and detail, the author only spent two weeks in Moscow to do research for the book. For the majority of his information, he had to rely upon the words of Russian émigrés he'd befriended in the United States. While Smith was in Moscow, he did not have a camera, fearing it would draw attention, but a sketchbook. As he walked the streets of the city he took notice of everything, even the small and rather obscure details, since he felt they were necessary in order to capture the true essence of Moscow. These seemingly trivial pieces of Muscovian life made a big difference though, especially to the readers and critics, who continuously praised Smith's accuracy?some people even believed him to be an expert on Russia. In fact, it was the author's inexpertness that made the novel so realistic. Smith used his imagination in capturing details of the story he wasn't entirely sure about, and by doing so he allowed his Moscow to come alive to the reader.
Smith was also commended on his portrayal of the novel's hero, Arkady Renko. According to Peter Osnos, the characters in some tales of Russia are far from realistic, "Most novels about the Soviets tend to caricature them into sinister stick figures: spies, dissidents, generals, political commissars" ("Three" 4). Gorky Park was different than most novels, however. Arkady fit into none of these categories?he was the Chief Investigator in Moscow, but not exactly what many would call an active member of the Communist Party, as was expected of such a high-ranking official. He was not corrupt, and unlike his lover Irina, he did not wish to escape his home of Moscow and flee to the great West. These traits made Arkady easier to like than most unrealistic characters seen in traditional spy novels, and so this particular aspect of the book helped it reach an even wider audience.
Several other factors could have contributed to the novel's success in sales. First, Gorky Park was often compared to Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, or to novels by Graham Greene and John le Carre. Since many people knew and liked these popular or classic novels and novelists, they might have considered reading Gorky Park just to see if it actually compared. Another factor in the book's popularity could have been plain old curiosity. The title of the book itself is rather different, especially if the potential reader has never been to Russia, or even heard of Moscow's famous Gorky Park. Lastly, Smith was virtually unknown at the time of the book's publication and didn't yet have a large following of readers, but a large publishing company, Random House, had given him a million dollars for his book. So, many people believed the book had to be good because it was getting quite a bit of attention. This knowledge, along with the book's record of positive reception among critics, could have caused a significant number of people to buy it as well.
Although the movie "Gorky Park" lost money at the box office and was considered a failure by many critics, it did not affect the book in a negative manner. The novel most likely received some benefits from the movie's release, as many people preferred to read the book before seeing the story appear on the big screen. Others could just not be convinced that "the bare bones of the book are better than the flesh" ("Man" 20). As for Smith, he called Dennis Potter's screenplay a "cold, sour script" ("Moscow rules"). It was a daunting task to try to condense such a highly developed plot into something shorter and simpler. Smith had this in mind when he was interviewed by the book editor of The Seattle Times, Mary Ann Gwinn: "That complexity makes it unlikely that you'll see Renko in a theater near you" ("Finding" C1). Smith was referring to the movie potential of Gorky Park's three sequels?Polar Star, Red Square, and Havana Bay?when he made the comment.
Gorky Park was only the beginning for Martin Cruz Smith?he wrote three sequels to this book, as well as two other novels. His most recent book, Havana Bay, was published in 1999. The author has remained a significant figure in literature even though the era of spy novels passed with the end of the Cold War. He says of this particular genre, "I don't find it as compelling or as credible. We've gone past the epic enemy. Now we're down to the mini-series enemy" ("When" 56-8). Smith's unmistakable style, as well as with his ability to depict both people and places with great care, contributed greatly to his success. Gorky Park has influenced the works of numerous authors, both in and out of its genre, and continues to serve as a standard for all mystery novels even today.
1. Beam, Ale. "?Havana' plot doesn't travel well." The Boston Globe 8 June 1998: D6.
2. Nathan, Robert Stuart. "A Moscow Cop at Sea." The New York Times 16 July 1989: 7-1.
3. Beddow, Reid. "Arkady Renko: From Gorky Park to the Bering Strait." The Washington Post 2 July 1989: X5.
4. Contemporary Authors Online Database
5. Emerson, Victor. "Gorky Park cop lives another day." The Ottawa Citizen 5 Dec. 1992: B7.
6. Mann, Paul. "Season of the Monsoon." Kirkus Reviews 15 Apr. 1993.
7. Lekachman, Robert. "A Wicked World, East and West." The Nation 4 Apr. 1981: 406-07.
8. Walton, Richard J. "A triple play for fans of the global thriller." The Chicago Tribune 19 Apr. 1981: 7-3-1-R.
9. Pascoe, David. "Moscow rules." Sunday Times 27 Sept. 1992.
10. Suplee, Curt. "The Master of ?Gorky Park.'" The Washington Post 10 Apr. 1981: F1a.
11. Watson, Julia. "Spies in the Cold War Thaw." The Washington Post 7 July 1992: C2.
12. Hausladen, Gary J. "Murder in Moscow." The Geographical Review Jan. 1995: 63-79.
13. Osnos, Peter. "Three Faceless Corpses." Book World-The Washington Post 29 Mar. 1981: 4.
14. Gwinn, Mary Ann. "Finding connected person is the key for novelist Smith." The Seattle Times 7 July 1999: C1.
15. Malcolm, Derek. "Our man in the savannah." Manchester Guardian Weekly 15 Jan. 1984: 20.
16. Kanfer, Stefan. "When spies become allies." Time 19 Aug. 1991: 56-8.