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Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Excellence of Martin Cruz Smith

    There are many good thriller writers out there, but there are only a few that are mentioned in the same breath as serious literary writers. At least for me, the ones that come first to mind are: Robert Goddard in his prime, John LeCarre, and, Martin Cruz Smith. LeCarre and Smith have the added distinction of writing novels that defined an entire era for a generation of readers. For LeCarre it was the Cold War. For Smith it’s Russia both before and after Communism.
     Here is why I appreciate Martin Cruz Smith. First, when you have finished one of his books, you have tasted, smelled, felt, heard, and seen the story. If the scene is in Moscow, you see the grime on the old buildings and feel the apathy of the people, you smell the food and the garbage, you sense the despair and the daily grind of life, the long waiting in lines – and all this while an incredibly exciting and intellectually fascinating crime story unfolds.
    Second, the characters are amazingly well-drawn. Before I ever read Gorky Park, Smith’s first Arkady Renko thriller, I read a blurb from a review where it said that Smith develops characters in a way other thriller writers can only dream of – or words to that effect. And how true that was! Read the scene in Gorky Park where Arkady talks to his father. Absolutely amazingly well drawn. No literary tricks. No formulaic writing. Pure art – using words to paint a true picture of an unforgettable character.
    One of the subtle things Smith does is he sometimes has Arkady uncover a clue but then only reveals that Arkady understands the significance of it later through Arkady’s actions. For example, in Havana Bay Arkady has been trying to guess the password into a dead man’s computer. He’s tried for days, and then he happens to talk to a woman who mentions the name of the man’s pet turtle. Smith doesn’t have Arkady think ‘Ah-ha!’ while the women is talking. But later, Arkady goes to the man’s apartment, types in the name, and gets into the computer. It’s a small thing, but so many other writers would have let the cat out of the bag immediately. For some reason, I find that device very effective.
    Finally, Smith does an amazing amount of research and so artfully blends the background information within the story that you hardly know he’s doing it. And, of course, his writing style, his sentence structure, and his descriptions are all creative, unique, and varied.  
    For my next blog, I will write about Revenge in Einstein’s Trunk.   

Jim Haberkorn
Zurich, April 14, 2011

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