Martin Cruz Smith Smith, Martin Cruz - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Martin Cruz Smith 1942–

(Born Martin William Smith; also writes as Martin Smith and under pseudonym of Simon Quinn) American novelist.

The publication in 1970 of The Indians Won marked the beginning of Smith's prolific writings. Since then, he has published over thirty crime and detective novels. Although fairly popular, none of these works generated as much critical and popular acclaim or were as important to his career as his 1981 novel of adventure and intrigue, Gorky Park.

Smith's work is noted for the detailed descriptions of often unusual settings. Gorky Park, for example, has been praised repeatedly for its depiction of Soviet lifestyles and manners. Smith also has the distinctive ability to build credible stories around seemingly odd combinations of people and places. His thriller, Nightwing, for instance, has been commended for its realistic presentation of Hopi Indian society within the context of a vampire story. In his early "Gypsy" series, Smith portrays a gypsy detective whose territory is New York City.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 6.)

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When Martin Smith's "Gypsy in Amber" was published,… it made a strong impression, an impression now reinforced by "Canto for a Gypsy."… Roman Grey, the gypsy antiques dealer who is the hero of Smith's series, is to the gypsy world what Harry Kemelman's Rabbi David Small is to Judaism. Both solve crimes that confront them; both are walking encyclopedias about their people and their way of life and thought. And all this is not supererogatory; it is germane to the mystery at hand and helps solve it….

Smith is a smooth operator. He plots well, maintains tension, and creates believable characters. There is an underlying menace in his books that hits at the racial subconscious. Gypsies, tea-leaves, reading the future, forgotten mysteries of mankind: nonsense, we say. Except that after putting down "Canto for a Gypsy," our superior smile may be a little weaker. Smith hits very hard.

Newgate Callendar, "Criminals at Large," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 21, 1973, p. 26.∗

Walter Clemons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Martin Cruz Smith] has a rare capacity to make the flesh crawl. The horrors in "Nightwing" are too vaguely set in motion: a Hopi medicine man, sickened by the intrusion of developers and tourists, resolves to "end the world." Vampire bats begin to rampage. Better the disruption of the natural order were entirely inexplicable, as in Hitchcock's "The Birds." But Smith has a fresh locale, arresting social detail about whites and Indians and a truly sickening ability to portray death in desert country….

The wipe-out of human life in the Western desert is averted, but the possibility seems very real: the bats and fleas have much greater vitality than the human characters. The leathery rustle of wings becomes unnerving; the activity of fleas under a microscope provides one of the book's best scenes. An imperfect thriller, "Nightwing" is a nightmare of natural history. (p. 100A)

Walter Clemons, "Flesh Crawlers." in Newsweek (copyright 1977, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XC, No. 23, December 5, 1977, pp. 100-100A.∗

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[If] you stop and consider it objectively, "Gorky Park" winds down to a rather clichéd international shoot-'em-up, complete with murky speculations on the difference between American and Soviet justice, bewildering shifts in the various characters' apparent motivations and the somewhat shopworn implication that modern state bureaucracies spend more time double-crossing each other than they do looking out for the people they are supposed to serve.

But in truth we don't really look at the end of this novel too objectively. We are still under the spell of its beginning and middle, because for its first two-thirds … "Gorky Park" is superb.

It is superb in its sense of mystery….

It is superb in its pacing, in the way it knits together coincidence and logical consequence to form a pattern of steadily accelerating excitement. Most of all, it is superb in its evocation of the Moscow atmosphere—or at least what this American imagines to be the Moscow atmosphere…. (p. 251)

At times, one can almost hear Mr. Smith chortling between the lines with delight over the way his Moscow has come to life and the way his characters move in it and express themselves….

Perhaps it was his lack of familiarity that enabled him to imagine [the locales of his story] so vividly. Comparing the final section of "Gorky Park" with what precedes it, one has to regret that Mr. Cruz, who lives in New York, does not know as little about his native city, or of the conventional denouements of iron-curtain thrillers. (p. 252)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "'Gorky Park'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 19, 1981 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. IV, No. 6, 1981, pp. 251-52).

Peter Osnos

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Among the many very good qualities of Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, the best is its sense of place. From the opening page …, the tension is palpable in every scene.

More perhaps than any other recent work of American fiction, this one conveys a feeling for the Soviet Union, its capital, its moods and its people—which is all the more remarkable because Smith spent a total of two weeks in Moscow in 1973…. He manages, nonetheless, to portray cops, robbers, suspects and victims with an uncanny authenticity….

Most novels about the Soviets tend to caricature them into sinister stick figures: spies, dissidents, generals, political commissars. Not this one. The hero, homocide investigator Arkady Renko is, in his way, a Russian-style Sam Spade, skilled yet vulnerable, solitary yet capable of love. Humphrey Bogart would have been a natural for a film of the book.

The point is that Gorky Park is not at all a conventional thriller about Russians. It is to ordinary suspense stories what John Le Carré is to spy novels. The action is gritty, the plot complicated, the overriding quality is intelligence. You have to pay attention or you'll get hopelessly muddled. But staying with this book is easy enough since once one gets going, one doesn't want to stop….

There is no reason to spin out the intricacies of the plot here. Sufficient to report, that the murders are motivated by a greed that no one coming to this book would readily predict. The choice of villains should tickle readers who prefer not to see every Soviet-American encounter end predictably with the trench-coated American downing a bourbon and branch water after the subdued (or eliminated) SMERSH agent gets his just desserts. There is enough villainy in Gorky Park to be shared all around….

Peter Osnos, "Three Faceless Corpses," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), March 29, 1981, p. 4.

Robert Lekachman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gypsy in Amber and Canto for a Gypsy, two earlier thrillers by Martin Cruz Smith, demonstrated several comparatively rare virtues of this genre, particularly feeling for unusual milieus…. Both were written with grace and humor and without gratuitous violence or sadism. Nonetheless, all that the experienced consumer of this literature could reasonably have expected was a superior series, featuring the exploits of Police Sergeant Isadore. In the best of such series, the curve of inspiration is downward because the hero is a stable character, an old but predictable friend like Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen, or the even more insufferable Lord Peter Wimsey. All parties—author, hero, readers, even villains—show signs of weariness as routine adventure succeeds routine adventure. The proprietor of the series turns into a rentier and the readers into addicts.

Gorky Park is a pleasant, even a stunning surprise, for its author has leaped several literary leagues onward into the company of genuine novelists. Although the murders, mutilations and episodes of minor violence are numerous enough to gratify the cravings even of those fed on contemporary best sellers, Gorky Park is only incidentally a murder story. It is a genuinely absorbing picture of certain aspects of Russian and American life, neither automatically anti-Soviet in the style of Commentary nor anti-American in the weary manner of the aging...

(The entire section is 404 words.)

Peter Andrews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Just when I was beginning to worry that the large-scale adventure novel might be suffering from a terminal case of the Folletts, along comes "Gorky Park" by Martin Cruz Smith, a book that reminds you just how satisfying a smoothly turned thriller can be. Mr. Smith fulfills all of the requirements of the adventure novel and then transcends the genre. "Gorky Park" is a proper novel, illuminated with fascinating glimpses of contemporary Russian life, a story dappled with flashes of irony….

[In] essence, "Gorky Park" is a police procedural of uncommon excellence. Martin Cruz Smith has managed to combine the gritty atmosphere of a Moscow police squad room with a story of detection as neatly done as any English manor-house puzzlement. I have no idea as to the accuracy of Mr. Smith's descriptions of Russian police operations. But they ring as true as crystal. (p. 1)

If "Gorky Park" suffers from a flaw, it is one that is common among even the best examples of the genre. There is a falling-off at the end, when the plot turns about three notches more than my credulity is prepared to be stretched. But the first 340 pages were splendid. (p. 30)

Peter Andrews, "Murder in Moscow, Arkady Renko on the Case," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 5, 1981, pp. 1, 30.

Karen Steinberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Suspense novels can either be cut-and-dried thrillers, or they can strike deeper chords through the interweaving of universal themes and concerns with plot. "Gorky Park" … belongs to the latter category of espionage novels.

While the story that unfolds in "Gorky Park" provides enough intricacy and suspense for the most demanding aficionado, it is not primarily details of plot that engage our attention. Rather, within the context of this specialized genre, Martin Cruz Smith has succeeded in rendering very believable, realistic, and gripping portrayals of certain segments of Soviet society and of man's search for meaning….

Certain scenes in the novel are particularly nicely done: A cat-and-mouse conversation between Arkady and his prime suspect is strongly reminiscent of the verbal sparring between Raskolnikov and police inspector Porfiry Petrovich in Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment."

While numerous gruesome details make this novel unsuited to the fainthearted, "Gorky Park" has much to recommend it. Far more than a mere espionage novel, "Gorky Park" is a vivid depiction of one man's struggle for meaning and truth within the Soviet system.

Karen Steinberg, "Murder Thriller Set in Moscow" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The Christian Science Monitor, April 13, 1981, p. B8.

John R. Dunlap

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Smith's dramatic stitching [in Gorky Park] is astonishingly plausible—neatly tailored to the grim reflections of Solzhenitsyn and to the grimly hilarious observations of Voinovich. It takes quite an imaginative leap, but, given the suppleness of the human spirit and the imbecility of the police state, a character like Chief Investigator Arkady Renko follows….

In a totalist police state, the ordinary policeman is no less oppressed than the hapless citizen, and one of the minor feats of Gorky Park is that it exposes—incidentally and therefore powerfully—the very core of the totalitarian social order: a system that tacitly encourages its captive people to hate each other.

But the major feat is the characterization of Arkady Renko….

Kingsley Amis once remarked that a critic should resist the temptation to call a fine writer a "creative artist." The writer may believe it, and his writing may consequently go to hell….

[Gorky Park] wavers beyond a consistently expert craftsmanship toward genuine art….

I shinny out on a critic's limb to note a scintillating creative flair about Gorky Park: not a single constipated sentence, not a trace of the intrusive artistic temperament, not a page lacking that telltale suggestion of the effortless, which, for the writer, follows only on great effort wed faithfully to minute detail. Gorky Park invites more than one reading, and reads as if there's more and maybe even better to come. (p. 34)

John R. Dunlap, "Book Reviews: 'Gorky Park'," in The American Spectator (copyright © The American Spectator 1981), Vol. 14, No. 9, September, 1981, pp. 32-4.

Caroline Moorehead

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[What gives Martin Smith's Gorky Park] its force is the stunning assurance of his descriptions. Some are simple trivialities: how pine martens are caught in trees, the way the black market works, the prostitutes on Kazan station who chalk their price on their toe caps. Others are entire reconstructions of organisations: the militia; the Siberian fur trade; the Moscow metro. They may not all be true, but they sound right.

More so, perhaps, than do the characters. Arkady is no party-liner, no grey pillar of the Moscow intelligentsia, but the classic hero, the good cop in a corrupt and evil institution…. He is sympathetic, wry, scruffy—but he also seems to be immortal, recovering with surprising ease from a stabbing, several months' interrogation in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, and a shoot-out in which only the innocent are spared. The minor characters come alive through their vanities and confusions. It is the major figures who are weak…. (p. 22)

There are, however, some compelling scenes and some strong passages of description, as well as dialogue that is fresh and often funny…. Martin Smith has an ear for the double-talk of Russian bureaucracy. The images remain, long after the intricacies of plot fade.

Gorky Park is certainly an intricate, even over-elaborate book. Apart from Arkady, all the characters are playing several games. As one phase of the action comes to an end another opens, like unpeeling an artichoke. There seems to be no heart. Why is Osborne allowed to go on manipulating everyone? Why, above all, is Arkady allowed to live? The concluding pages of this long book are unsatisfactory, as if only a James Bond solution of pyrotechnics—all car chase and bullets and whirling snow—could tie up a story that has got out of hand.

These criticisms are possibly churlish. Gorky Park is a marvellously readable book, alert, tense, even touching. It may be that it draws some of its power from the novelty of its Russian setting, but I do not think much. It is, of course, a thriller, but it also belongs among those books which are not quickly labelled, the mavericks, the writers' books, where the voice is somehow different. (pp. 22-3)

Caroline Moorehead, "Double-Talk," in The Spectator (© 1981 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 247, No. 7992, September 12, 1981, pp. 22-3.∗

Howard Lachtman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What is truly fascinating [about Gorky Park] is not Smith's Byzantine plot (it's about fur-smuggling, icon-forging, and dissident activities), but the absolute reality of the illusion that we have entered into Soviet life. Scenes and characterizations leap off the page with the clarity and coherence of photographs….

The first police procedural novel to be set in the Soviet Union, Gorky Park is spellbinding in its view of an obstructive bureaucracy and destructive KGB at war with a lone detective. Renko's competence poses the kind of internal threat to the Soviet justice system which makes him vulnerable. The question of his vulnerability assumes a major role in the reader's expectations, and this concern for Renko's safety gradually creates a close bond between reader and hero. But Smith also earns our admiration by allowing us the fun of trying to outguess the shrewd Renko. If the Russian sleuth never quite takes us into his confidence, we understand how a man in his position, with an unfaithful wife, a questionable mistress, and a double-crossing department, must play his cards close to the vest.

Smith's gift for character-drawing begins with Renko and branches out to a wonderful cast of supporting players who have plausibility, wit, and irony to recommend them….

If the book has a flaw, it's the downward spiral of events that occur once Renko is relocated in America. Something of the magic seems to be lost in the long leap from Gorky Park to Central Park. And in the inevitable shoot-out at the end between agents and cops of two nations, Smith opts for a Wild West climax, a blur of gunsmoke and identities.

These flaws undercut the credibility, but not the achievement, of a novel whose distinction is that it provides us with a new kind of detective from a most unexpected source. Renko's public investigation and private life illumine not only the heart and soul of the Russian nation but the sorrow and pity of our times. On any level—mystery, psychology, espionage, sociology—Gorky Park is a reading experience which ought not to be missed. (p. 362)

Howard Lachtman, "Current Reviews: 'Gorky Park'," in The Armchair Detective (copyright © 1981 by The Armchair Detective), Vol. 14, No. 4, 1981, pp. 361-62.