Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (1981): Smith’s late-Cold-War thriller was a huge success in 1981, soon spawning a big-budget film adaptation starring William Hurt. It involves the efforts of Moscow homicide investigator Arkady Renko to somehow solve a triple homicide that ultimately almost no one — not the Politburo, his superiors, or the KGB — wants him to solve.
The novel’s greatest strength is its accumulation of detail about the workings of Soviet society at the tail end of the Brehznev era. Regardless of how accurate the novel’s details are, they seem accurate through their specificity and consistency and through Smith’s wide-ranging depiction of everything from the philosophy of appliance-buying to the average citizen’s reliance on vodka.
The middle-aged Renko is a sharply drawn character in the world-weary but noble tradition of hard-boiled detectives, and his outsider-status in his own department almost makes him a private detective rather than a cop. Burdened by family history (his mother committed suicide while his still-living father is an unrepentant former general with Stalinist leanings), Renko nonetheless doggedly pursues the truth in a situation where no one really wants to know the truth.
As a depiction of a decaying totalitarian system, Gorky Park is excellent — the Soviet bureaucracy is a blighted wonder to behold. But the novel also takes the worst aspects of the United States to task as it winds its labyrinthine way through a conspiracy that’s both much more and much less than it appears to be. Highly recommended.