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When the locale adds to the plot

When the locale adds to the plot
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First Published: Fri, Mar 27 2009. 09 16 PM IST

Colourist: Smith lives in California.
Colourist: Smith lives in California.
Updated: Fri, Mar 27 2009. 09 16 PM IST
In his manual Writing Crime Fiction, H.R.F. Keating says that all the world’s exotic locations are open to the writer and “it is not altogether necessary, if your mind is constructed that way, actually to visit your chosen locale”. Despite this, it is my humble opinion that Keating’s own books about CID Inspector Ghote would have benefited immensely from some walking about in Mumbai.
Colourist: Smith lives in California.
Yet sometimes the most evocative descriptions of milieus are written by those who have had very limited access to a place, such as Martin Cruz Smith, who in the pre-Internet days managed to depict life behind the Iron Curtain with seeming accuracy.
“Seeming” is perhaps the key word. A crime novel is, like any novel, a contract between a writer and a reader. The reader is obliged to read only so far as he or she is persuaded. By this criteria, Smith’s Arkady Renko books rank high—they are extremely vivid stories of a Moscow investigator whom life is always conspiring against.
Each book in the series is a gripping story of Renko’s battle against impossible odds (he’s usually almost dead by the last page), but taken together they also form a historical narrative spanning the last stages of the old Soviet Union through glasnost and perestroika, mirroring the upheavals and brutal capitalism of the 2000s with its mafias, oligarchs, remnants of old communism and bleak Vodkaholism.
Smith has obviously read up on his subject, yet that still doesn’t account for the local colour which seems completely convincing to me (I grant, though, that I’ve only spent 24 hours in Moscow). He has received a lot of praise. The Guardian writes that “when Smith is at his best, it is impossible to tell how much is research and how much imagination”, and literary columnist Pradeep Sebastian notes that Smith “is not merely America’s greatest thriller writer, he’s one of their best writers, period”.
Today Smith’s Gorky Park (1981) is, paradoxically, one of the major reasons for tourists to visit the eponymous amusement park—but in those days it was so difficult to go to Moscow that the movie version, starring William Hurt and Lee Marvin, had to be shot in Helsinki instead.
Namesake: Smith made Moscow’s Gorky Park famous.
As it turns out, Smith managed to do a quick visit with a tour group in 1973. Of the two weeks in Russia, he appears to have spent six days in Moscow, ditching the group as often as possible to take long walks and collect details. Not speaking a word of Russian and without a camera (a camera-toting foreigner might have caught the attention of the KGB), he used sketchbooks to document people and places.
His publishers had advanced $15,000 (around Rs7.5 lakh now) for the book, but Smith fell out with them when he decided that his investigator must be Russian. After a five-year conflict, he bought back his own book, and then luckily his agent managed to broker a million-dollar publishing deal. Gorky Park—with its non-American hero—became an instant best-seller, catapulting the hitherto obscure pulp writer (who’d penned Nick Carters for a living) to global fame. The book was, of course, banned in Russia, where Smith was put on the KGB’s list of dangerous agent provocateurs, even making the novel something of a cult read for Muscovites.
Smith’s success must be attributed largely to how tirelessly he ferrets out the mundane details of local life to adorn his plots with. The books usually take three or four years to research and write. He once said in an interview: “I only write about what I am curious about. That means I know nothing about it at all, and have to find out. And that always takes a while to get together, and then even longer to figure out how to make fiction from it. Then you only ever use the smallest amount of what you have learnt.”
Although Gorky Park was planned as a one-off thing, investigator Arkady Renko has continued his detective work through five sequels and is now, in Stalin’s Ghost (2007), well into his 50s and as stubbornly alive as in the first book. And recently Smith himself was spotted doing more research in Moscow—where he has been taken off the “enemy of the state” list.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based Swedish writer of crime fiction.
Write to Zac at criminalmind@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Mar 27 2009. 09 16 PM IST