Martin Cruz Smith Essay - Critical Essays


Martin Cruz Smith’s novels keep the reader turning the pages quickly. His sentences are most often short and emphatic, with repetition and parallelism as important devices. For example, Arkady Renko considers the nature of American John Osborne:Arkady felt cold, as if the windows had opened. Osborne was not sane, or not a man. If money could grow bones and flesh it would be Osborne. It would wear the same cashmere suit; it would part its silver hair the same way; it would have the same lean mask with its expression of superior amusement.

Smith achieves success as a writer not through flamboyant style but by placing his protagonists in situations that require them to confront their own codes of ethics. A natural storyteller, he explores people’s relationship with their culture. The couples in his books, lovers as well as detective partners, are most real when they are downcast and threatened by the powers that be. Smith’s strengths lie in his ability to portray people’s responses to crisis—including their frustration, weakness, and cynicism.

Smith works best within the police procedural formula. Smith often uses mismatched partners to investigate a crime. The partners in the Gypsy series are Roman Grey and Harry Isadore, the New York Police Department’s expert on Gypsies. Isadore “may still be a sergeant at forty-nine” but can deliver “a lovely lecture on Gypsies at City College.” The almost trusting relationship between Grey and Isadore, hindered only by Isadore’s occasional unfulfilled threat to arrest Grey, leads the reader to respect the partners in the Gypsy series and see their work as complementary. In Nightwing, however, the partners are a bat killer, Hayden Paine, and an Indian deputy, Youngblood Duran, whose relationship is stormy, marked by death threats backed up by loaded guns. Paine has been hired by leaders of a Navajo reservation to locate the source of an outbreak of the plague. Duran is investigating the death of an Indian medicine man who was apparently killed by a wild animal. Both investigations lead to one source: vampire bats that carry bubonic plague. The partners meet for the last time in the middle of the Painted Desert and then seek the bat cave together. The partners’ antagonism gives way in the end to Duran’s memorializing Paine as a hero for his extermination of the bats.

In Gorky Park, Smith was able to create detective partners who are combative and cooperative in a much more satisfying fashion. These investigators, the Russian Arkady Renko and the American James Kirwill, initially threaten each other. Whereas in Nightwing the threat begins with tense but quiet accusation, in this novel, Renko and Kirwill first meet at the scene of the murder in Gorky Park, where Kirwill comes close to killing Renko. Their fistfight, which Renko loses, is followed by Kirwill’s shooting at Renko:When Arkady stepped forward, the hand lowered. He saw a barrel. The man aimed with both hands the way detectives were trained to fire a gun, and Arkady dove. He heard no shot and saw no flash, but something smacked off the ice behind him and, an instant later, rang off stones.

As Renko continues his investigation, he in turn nearly kills the American:Arkady wasn’t aware of raising the makeshift gun. He found himself aiming the barrel at a point between Kirwill’s eyes and pulling the trigger so that the doubled rubber band and plunger started to move smoothly. At the last moment he aimed away. The closet jumped and a hole two centimeters across appeared in the closet door beside Kirwill’s ear. Arkady was astonished. He’d never come close to murdering anyone in his life, and when the accuracy of the weapon was considered he could as easily have killed as missed. A white mask of surprise showed where the blood had drained around Kirwill’s eyes.

Now the partners are even: Each has nearly shot the other. The symmetry in physical risk between the two culminates in Kirwill’s death at John Osborne’s hand; just as Renko was stabbed in Moscow, so is Kirwill stabbed in New York. In New York, the partners have been able to overcome their differences and work together to net Osborne.

Smith’s partner theme extends from mismatched working partners to mismatched lovers and to a partnership between humans and animals. In his works, Smith creates a universe that places humans in a mythic relationship with animals.

Roman Grey Series

Mismatched lovers are sources of conflict in the Roman Grey series. Roman Grey’s love for a non-Gypsy, Dany Murray, offends other Gypsies, who often accuse him of being Anglicized by her. His cooperation with Sergeant Isadore further provokes the Gypsies’ ire. As a Gypsy colleague says to Grey in Canto for a Gypsy, “Each day I see you are more with them than us. First the girl and then the police. Maybe you want to be the first Gypsy in their heaven?”

These mismatched lovers undergo trials by fire in their relationship. Grey envisions his love leaving him because she will not be able to fit in with his Gypsy life, particularly during a trip through Europe:She wouldn’t break during the first month . . . because she had determination. But determination would only take her so far. Her fascination of Rom would turn to disgust. Their car would carry the stench of sweat and...

(The entire section is 2199 words.)