Between the three corpses dug out of the snow in Gorky Park, Moscow and the sables let loose in the snow on Staten Island at the end – ‘black on white, black on white, and then gone’ – there are connections of cause and effect such as few crime novels have ever had to cope with. Gorky Park is a long novel because it tries to deal as fully with Moscow as Simenon’s novels with Paris or Chandler’s with Los Angeles. And perhaps also because its hero, chief homicide investigator Arkady Renko, is knocked about, by his own side and the other side, even more than characters in Simenon or Chandler, and the author allows for injury time. But the story moves fast, and bears lightly its weight of information about the MVD and KGB, the work of the Ethnological Institute in reconstructing the missing face of a corpse, the Soviet monopoly on sable furs, and such ordinary things as the price of beer. It has a Russian kind of poetry – ‘There was a solid, porcelain quality to the sky. It would squeak if you rubbed your thumb on it, Arkady thought’ – as well as an American kind: ‘Schmidt showed a smile as hard as a car grille.’
But we never forget that this intimate inside-view of Russia comes from an American writer – which isn’t such a bad thing: it works to the advantage of the novel that a double image, Russian and American, is constantly before the reader. It’s not just that the last chapters are set in America, or that Americans, both cops and villains, are on the scene in Moscow from the start. It’s that the double image is a mirror image. ‘Things can’t be so different in America,’ Arkady says, and lives to prove the point. His survival, as a member of the Moscow militia of the MVD – in brief, a cop – is threatened more by the KGB than by any outside agency. We see the same hostility between New York cops and the FBI. Long arms are stretched from both countries to protect informants. The double agent is no longer a lone individual: his trade is practised at all levels in both systems, and on both sides police brutality is matched by the bureaucratic snares:
‘It’s against the immigration laws of the United States to admit a criminal. The laws are very strict unless you’re an illegal alien ... You’re not here legally. You’re not here illegally either, because then you’d have a leg to stand on. You’re simply not here at all, and there’s no way you can prove otherwise.’
It’s no better, no worse, in either place. This could be a message, if not of brotherly love, at least of mutual understanding: but I didn’t find it quite so. Politically naive as a thriller of this sophistication makes one feel, I had tremors of unease about the right-wing tendencies of the mirror-image idea. Unease is fed by the book’s sardonic asides – as above on illegal immigrants – and even by its obvious liking for men of broad midriff, for Russian toughs fed on potatoes, and the good sort of New York cops: ‘big, unshaven men, muscle and fat tucked into plaid shirts and belts with detective shields – nothing like the slim agents of the FBI’.
Arkady is a variant of the dumb-ox detective hero. Early on, he wonders: ‘Exactly who are you and what do you have to say? Define precisely what benefit you perform for society’ – and there’s no answer. Like Porfiry, the investigator in Crime and Punishment, he can play a shrewdly spiritual game with a suspect. But shadowy Russian prototypes aside, he essentially belongs in the tradition of the American cop, his true home a Warner Brothers movie. He’s not expected to answer awkward existential questions: but he has something, an integrity of his own, that only a hero empty of everything else seems to possess. The empty heroes of Hemingway and the earlier American crime novelists look a long way away now. It’s odd that this book – a stylish one, and a substantial addition to its genre – should follow those dim ghosts. But Arkady is one of them: only perhaps more stylish in having fewer inhibitions about killing, and a more uncanny power to survive violence himself. Besides toughness, he has that special grace of the empty hero that enables him, disbelieving in everything, including himself, to pull moral absolutes out of nowhere. He alone stands in the end for truth, justice and honour. This is more remarkable than his gift for survival.
One Intelligence man plotting the defection of another often finds himself, in spy stories, plunged into metaphysical difficulties. ‘To what extent did I have the right to say “I am Kiril Volsky,” when there was a man who said “I am Igor Popov”? ... I imprudently paced up and down the Rue de Grenelle, alternately hoping and fearing that I would meet this “I” who was so little like me, yet was becoming my double.’ These difficulties are much more the subject of The Turn-Around than its comparatively simple story of counter-intelligence in Paris in the 1960s, though this is expertly handled. In fact, the narrator, Kiril Volsky on the French side, does share a good deal with Major Popov of the KGB: they have not only a profession in common but Russian souls, making them susceptible to the religion they think they have rejected. Volsky, for all his hard-bitten Parisian ways, ‘always felt that each morning is the first morning, as if the Father were giving Adam one more chance ... ’ Popov has apparently been the complete Soviet man from the moment he joined the Pioneers and ritually sacrificed his teddy bear (tears over that are the only cause for shame he has ever felt). He has since sacrificed his parents as well as the teddy, and is rising to the top of the KGB. Yet we find him on the point of defection, in the confessional of the Orthodox Church of the Dormition – so there must be a chink somewhere through which, perhaps not French Intelligence or the CIA, but God has entered? Yes and no: we can study all the evidence, for the church is bugged and 118 minutes of his confession are on tape. It’s not a penitent confession: confident of his record, all he wants is to take the next step and become a saint. The hypothesis is that God can be reached in this Holy Russian way as well as any other. Pronouncing absolution, the priest is on his knees to Popov: ‘How you must suffer! I prostrate myself before your evil.’
A likely story, we’d say, meaning an unlikely one: but the author, too, has this in mind, and like his Intelligence agents isn’t easily caught out. He gets in with his disclaimer – the use of this ludicrous theme from Dostoevsky could be only a come-on, a possible cover story. The one thing expected of a modern novelist is to be ready with instant disclaimers. Kiril Volsky interrupts his narrative to reflect on his own dubious relations with the truth, which he describes as those of a novelist – reminding us that someone has invented all this, and it’s not Volsky but Vladimir Volkoff. And he in turn constantly reminds us of his characters’ insubstantiality: ‘but the character Marina was playing could not burst out laughing, she could only accede, bow out, literally, from the waist like a real Russian woman, and let Popov move away towards the Métro with his characteristic step, redolent both of the Conquistador and of Groucho Marx.’ And if the religion is unreal, so is the Paris of this novel, though it has all the details needed to take you in – the food and wine, the florist’s shop, the Métro stations, even Malraux living in Boulogne-sur-Seine and the shade of M. de Norpois still at the Quai d’Orsay. But the contrivance is just a shade too obvious. That’s the curious thing about a novel that so largely spends its time undoing itself: the plotting between Intelligence agencies looks real, and all the rest looks like fantasy.
Like the young Michael Innes, Sarah Caudwell both respects and flouts the conventions of the detective story. Thus was Adonis murdered is a very modern novel using the archaic epistolary method of Clarissa: aptly enough, because it has as much to do with seduction as with detection, and because the style of Clarissa matches the mock-18th-century periods of young barristers of Lincoln’s Inn – not the fastest idiom for a crime story, but Sarah Caudwell makes ingenious and witty use of it. The detective-story convention expects such homage to the past, distancing us all – reader and characters – from the messy details of crime in the present. It also expects some reputable form of expertise, and here there are two: the law – especially Finance Acts – and connoisseurship of North Italian art. The murder is traditional – handsome young man stabbed to death in a Venetian hotel – and an Oxford don solves the mystery by inference and logic. The settings are scrupulously exact, in the Veneto as in Chancery Lane, and without resort to local colour: Venice has rarely been described so sparsely and effectively. There’s too much persiflage among young barristers, but underneath is an exemplary respect for evidence and accuracy. I could fault the book only on a misquotation of Ezra Pound in one of the heroine’s letters – and this girl is scatty about everything except the Finance Act and bed. Sexually, it isn’t trad Crime Club stuff at all, and, while preserving an 18th-century decorum, it even stands Richardson on his head: seduction is here wholly the work of women. The heroine’s strategies are those of a Lovelace or Valmont. The assurance with which the lovely Ned, the Adonis of the title, is treated as a sex-object would seem outrageous nowadays if it wasn’t that he’s a male. Not that this is a moralising or feminist story: it has a Firbankian amorality and elegance.
A Splash of Red doesn’t make any such adroit use of convention, but is convention itself: it is squarely set in detective-story-land. The scene is modern London, but the style and method are those of the golden age of detection – which wasn’t, in fact, so long ago, but long enough to give this novel a faded air of ‘period’. This is partly just a matter of there being far more words to every point, but also of the way setting and all its adjuncts dominate the story. The setting here includes an Adam square in London and the British Library Reading Room. The adjuncts include such characters as Lord Valentine Brighton, a publisher, and Sir Richard Lionnel, an art-loving tycoon; and include, too, since she lacks any clear definition of her own – in spite of being, it appears, famous and intelligent – the detective heroine Jemima Shore. They are wealthy, but can express this only in a period way – the Rolls, the roses, the clothes and the talk: ‘ “Give me five minutes to recover, old girl.” The sobriquet was somehow pathetically sportive. “I won’t rat on you,” he added, in the same Kiplingesque idiom.’ That puts the whole book into period, not just the character concerned. As a setting for murder it is denser than Sarah Caudwell’s, and there are more comfortable echoes: one can submerge in it, and submerging in plenty of circumstance is one of the pleasures of a murder story. The series of deaths, the surprises and suspense, are effective in a storyland way – though real detection, based on craftmanship and structure, cannot be supplied as ‘period’ and is only too evidently a thing of the past. Murder doesn’t disturb the old world; modernity in the form of sex and architecture disturbs it only a little. Sir Richard has built a concrete horror into the Adam square, but it’s no surprise that his own quarters in it have a ‘gracious Country Life-style drawing-room’. Chloe, the first corpse, is as promiscuous as any modern heroine, yet at the time of her death is engaged on a very old-fashioned dodge: blackmailing one lover into marriage on the basis of a pregnancy caused by another. Voyeurism is a theme (discussed in whispers in the BL Reading Room) – but voyeurism has a curious affinity with the old-style murder mystery: perhaps it’s a kind of voyeur’s satisfaction that this provides, crime having its fascinations no less than sex.
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