17 May, 2009

Books 11 and 12 - Gorky Park and Polar Star, or: Russophiles love Soviet detectives

Vaguely related link of the day: Should libraries have e-books? I'm not sure they should.

And now, to business. Sorry for the slightly extended time between posts - I have MILLIONS of assignments to write at the moment (and by MILLIONS I mean... three). BUT I decided to blog two-books-in-one-post to make up for the delay, and also to make up for the fact I might not have time to read anything next week. Woe.

Title: Gorky Park (1981)
Polar Star (1989)

Author: Martin Cruz Smith

Why this book?
One of my co-workers is a total russophile. I asked her if she'd read Child 44, and she was so incredibly excited to find out that I'd read it that she immediately leapt at the chance to recommend to me every book written about Russia or by Russians, ever. Which is actually pretty cool, because she has an awesome taste in books.

What's it all about anyway?
Arkady Renko is a Soviet detective who is assigned the case of a triple murder when three dead, faceless bodies are found in the titular Gorky Park. At first, Renko assumes that this has been a political killing, and that the case will soon be taken off his hands - but this never comes to pass. Drawn into investigating further despite himself, Renko finds out that things are more complicated than he had first imagined - involved are American businessmen and spies, Russian loyalists and traitors, and corruption, everywhere, even in his own police force. Yet Renko is unable to let things go, even as his own life is torn apart, and is determined to follow the truth, wherever, and to whomever, it leads him.

Polar Star begins sometime after the events of Gorky Park, with Renko hiding from his past, as best he can, on board a fishing factory ship. Renko is more than happy to keep his history and his thoughts to himself, but when a young crew member turns up dead he suddenly finds himself once more investigating a murder. This time, Renko finds himself in a different quandary; while he has nothing left to lose, his crewmates have plenty, and if he refuses to label the death as an accident or a suicide they're not going to be happy. But once again Renko's doggedness and curiosity make him refuse to let things go, which is how he finds himself trapped amongst the snow and ice with a man he convicted of murder in his former life - a man who is now intent on revenge...

The Good and the Bad
That classic, noir-ish detective feeling just worked so well for a Soviet detective story. Renko is jaded, tired of working in a country where there the truth is whatever his superiors tell him it is. Renko's wife is perfect as a woman who is more interested in her husband's career trajectory than in his own feelings, and Irina contrasts strongly with her as the femme fatale who is as much victim as she is a threat.

Probably the most interesting character arc across the two novels is that of Pribluda. When we first meet him he is everything that Renko hates: a political tool, and man who sees no problem with shooting prisoners and then claiming they were trying to escape. His loathing for Renko goes even further - when Renko is captured by Soviet authorities and tortured for being a dissident, Pribluda hopes that he will be the one who gets to finally kill him. And yet Renko's steadfastness and dedication to the truth, the very things that make Pribluda despise him, also make him the only person Pribluda can turn to when he himself is forced to see the corruption in the system he loves. Instead of killing Renko, he ends up helping him to survive. By the events of Polar Star, the two are actually good friends.

Something I really enjoyed was Renko's contact with America. To so many of his people, to the young, especially, America is almost a mythical place, a country without corruption, where people can think and say whatever they like. To Irina, almost any price is worth paying to get there; but Renko's trip to America sees him dealing solely with men who are just as corrupt as those he has left behind. In the end, Renko realises, he is too Russian to ever be truly happy in America, and he knows however much trouble he'll be in for his actions he'll have to return home.

In Gorky Park, there is no sign that Soviet Russia is anything other than the strong, proud, Communist nation is projects itself to be; but by the time Renko is at work on the Polar Star there are cracks showing around the edges. The books don't hold any of the chilling atmosphere found in Child 44 - Renko's jaded view of the world simply doesn't allow for that - but Cruz Smith portrays what were current events for him so accurately, and with surprisingly little bias, that this could just as easily be a contemporary, historical novel.

So should I read it or what?
My vote is yes, and yes. I actually enjoyed Polar Star more than Gorky Park, but I don't think there's any point reading the second novel without having read the first. There are actually four further books in the series, and you can bet I'm going to read them as soon as I can lay my hands on them (and when I've finished my MILLIONS of assignments).

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