With his vintage novel Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith captures the gray, soulless behemoth that was the once mighty Soviet Union. As the iconic protagonist — noble to a fault and intractably loyal to the woman and the country he loves — Arkady Renko is determined to solve the murder of the three people found dead in Moscow’s Gorky Park, no matter what the cost. Renko is hampered as much by the corruption and bungling of the political establishment as he is by the lack of clues to the victims’ identities — for their faces have been skinned away. The crime is brutal, the stakes high and the trail to the killer convoluted in ways that are surprising and dramatic.

Renko is a noble hero: a man faithful to a woman who doesn’t deserve him and to a concept of government that has long betrayed both its mission and the people it claims to represent. This is not a new book but it is one to read if you want to revisit the now vanquished USSR or if all you know about Russia is the current geopolitical entity that emerged from the rubble of the old communist state. Gorky Park is far more than a good mystery; it’s a history lesson as well.

BIB note: After the Moscow murders are solved, Smith resurrects his protagonist in Polar Star and again in Red Square, Stalin’s Ghost and Three Stations. Good reads each, though none quite match the intensity and intrigue of the first.

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