Gorky Park: Chilling murder mystery

On dust jacket of Gorky Park, Russian fur hat with red star lies in bloody snow.
Snow, blood, fur… keys to the mystery in Gorky Park.

Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park is like no other murder mystery you’ve ever read.

By taking traditional murder mystery elements into unfamiliar settings, Cruz Smith creates a world that feels absolutely authentic.

The novel is set in Moscow, where three frozen corpses are found by accident in Gorky Park. When the Militia’s homicide detective, Arkady Renko, arrives on the scene, the KGB agent is already there, which means the murder is a political crime.

Major Priblula makes sure his men destroy as much potential evidence at the scene as possible, declares the murders aren’t a political security case, and turns the investigation over to Renko, stipulating that Renko send him regular, detailed reports.

Renko senses he’s being used. He tries to keep busy investigating without finding anything, but his instincts lead him to facts that his analytical mind pieces together.

The story gets more complicated when Renko finds one of the murdered men was an American who had the same last name as an American tourist who turns out to be a New York City policeman .

The plot is complicated by believably complex characters, many of whom are not what they appear to be and several of whom don’t even admit their motivations to themselves.

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
Random House. ©1981. 365 p.
1981 bestseller #5. My grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

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The Fifth Horseman: Bombs and bureaucrats

A nuclear explosion is background for type on cover of The Fifth Horseman
Nuclear bomb threat is central to this novel.

The Fifth Horseman is a thriller merging 1970s international news and hometown fears in a narrative that still feels contemporary.

Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has devised a plot to trigger a nuclear bomb hidden somewhere in New York City if the Americans don’t get Israel to abandon territories seized from Arabs.

Getting the bomb into New York and getting directions to the White House falls to Kamil and Whalid Dajani and their sister, Laila.

The trio had vowed vengeance for the loss of the family’s West Bank home.

Whalid studied nuclear physics and went to work for the French nuclear program.

Whalid’s political views softened; Kamil’s and Laila’s became harder.

Laila, disguised, delivers the terrorists’ threat.

Gaddafi gives the U.S. 36 hours to comply. Should the U.S. attempt to evacuate the city, Gaddafi will detonate the bomb immediately.

Americans scrambling to respond to the nuclear threat discover they have few options other than to find the bomb and disarm it without news of the crisis leaking out.

Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre had been news reporters before joining forces to write books.  Their first hand observation of political appointees shows in their depiction of inept bureaucrats trying to solve an immediate problem.

That in itself still renders The Fifth Horseman terrifying.

The Fifth Horseman
by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
Simon and Schuster. ©1980. 478 p.
1980 bestseller #9. My grade: A-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Bourne Identity: Gripping story, forgettable characters

A sea shell pierced by a nail against a black background on the dust jacket of “The Bourne Identity”
The Bourne Identity cover art symbolizes murder attempt at sea

As he did in his previous bestseller, The Matarese Circle, in The Bourne Identity novelist Robert Ludlum tells a story that will keep readers turning pages long past their bedtime.

Bourne is the identity assumed by a man pulled from the Mediterranean “more corpse than man,” unable to remember anything about his past, including why he has a piece of microfilm with a Swiss bank account number implanted in his hip.

In Zurich, the amnesiac takes a woman hostage—every spy story requires the hero have a woman to complicate the plot—and together in Paris they begin to piece together Jason Bourne’s origins in Southeast Asia.

Ludlum is a master storyteller. Plot is his forte. Ludnum gives his characters just enough depth to be recognizable. They learn what’s necessary to advance the plot, but they don’t grow.

A day after closing The Bourne Identity, readers may wonder how Bourne, even before being shot in the head multiple times, could have been expected to remember everything he was required to remember to implement the machination of the West’s intelligence services.

Two days later, readers may even be unable to recall the names of the main characters.

But while they’re reading, they will be totally immersed in this complex, fast-paced thriller.

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
R. Marek Publishers, © 1980. 523 p.
1980 bestseller #2. My grade: B+

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Dead Zone is superb storytelling

Cover of "The Dead Zone" features photo of man's face partially concealed by a wheel of fortune.
The wheel of fortune sets the novel’s action rolling.

Stephen King begins The Dead Zone with a very ordinary American boy, Johnny Smith, in a small New England town.

Johnny is learning to ice skate in 1953 when he falls, knocking himself out.

Johnny comes to muttering, “Don’t jump it no more” to Chuck Spier, who the next month will lose an eye jump-starting his car.

Years later, Johnny is a high school teacher.

An accident on the way home from taking his girl to a carnival puts Johnny in a coma for four-and-a-half years.

When he awakens, he has months of excruciating physical therapy.

He also has occasional, intense, and unwelcome psychic perceptions.

Johnny unwittingly becomes a target of gullible people seeking answers.

He also becomes the target of skeptics who assume he’s a shyster out to bilk the public.

His teaching contract is withdrawn because he’s too controversial.

His widowed father, who should be retired, has to go back to work just to feed them.

Then one day Johnny shakes hands with a congressional candidate and sees the man’s evil agenda.

Even if you can’t believe a crack on the head in ’53 triggers psychic experiences, you have to admire the skill with which King builds his story.

This is superb storytelling.

The Dead Zone by Stephen King
Viking Press, 1979. 372 p.
1979 bestseller #6 My grade: B+

 

 

Overload: Inside the power industry

A blacked-out city and list of Arthur Hailey's other bestsellers are on the dust jacket of "Overload".
O in Overload shows city blackout.

Overload, like several other Arthur Hailey’s bestsellers, goes inside an industry the public takes for granted and reveals the internal problems the public rarely sees—the ones that could change their lives.

Overload is about the fictitious Golden State Power and Light, which its critics say is amassing huge profits to the benefit of stockholders and the detriment of electric and gas customers.

Nim Goldman is the too-outspoken assistant to GSP&L’s chairman. Goldman knows California production facilities are barely adequate to meet the ’70s energy demands. Without more energy generation and diversified energy sources, Goldman predicts an electrical famine within a decade.

Davey Birdsong, a colorful and dynamic activist, leads the popular opposition to anything that raises utility rates. The Sequoia Club has formed an uneasy, and secret, alliance with Birdsong.

Goldman has the usual discretely described sexual conquests typical of a Hailey leading man.

But Overload is unusual in a two ways: Goldman is more sexually predatory than the usual Hailey hero, and two of the novel’s sub plots are awkwardly wedged into the main tale.

Despite its flaws, Overload is a page-turner whose picture of America’s energy problems and the inefficiency of government regulation of the power industry are still valid.

Overload by Arthur Hailey
Doubleday, ©1979. 515 p.
1979 bestseller #03 My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Matarese Circle

Robert Ludlum’s The Matarese Circle is an edge-of-the-seat thriller that will hold your attention to the final full stop.

Black background of dust jacket sets off white type and circular blue mark of The Matarese.
The blue mark identifies Matarese members .

The lead characters are an American spy, Brandon Scofield, and his Soviet counterpart, Vasili Taleniekov.

The two are deadly enemies. Scofield holds Taleniekov responsible for his wife’s death; Taleniekov blames Scofield for killing his brother in retaliation.

When the Russian stumbles upon a secret organization that’s financing terrorists around the world, he can’t discern the Matarese’s motive, but he knows the Matarese must be stopped.

To stop them, Taleniekov has to get Scofield to work with him.

Both men are the best in their respective nations’ intelligence communities.

Both are considered mavericks.

Both are tired.

Both are beginning to doubt that their lives’ work has made any difference.

Once they agree to cooperate, the pair go to Corsica where the Matarese is legendary but never spoken of to outsiders and not often mentioned among Corsicans.

Whispers suggest the organization dates from the eleventh century.

Intelligence services know the Matarese provided assassins for hire until the 1930s.

No one knows what they are doing in the 1970s

Ludlum spins a good yarn.

The unlikely collaborators deal the Matarese a death blow.

Or do they?

The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum
R. Marek Publishers, ©1979. 601 p.
1979 bestseller #01 My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Eye of the Needle

“Eye of the Needle” cover. A male figure seen through eye of a bloody stiletto with Nazi symbols.
That’s blood on Farber’s stiletto.

In 1944, the whole world expected the Allies to invade German-held territory on the continent soon.

The question was where.

Ken Follett’s novel Eye of the Needle is based on the hoax of cardboard ships and planes, called the First United States Army Group, that Britain created to suggest they will attack at Calais, near Belgium, rather than at their intended site in Normandy.

From that historical fact, Follett sets up a thrilling cat-and-mouse game in which a German spy, Henry Faber, called “The Needle” because of his preference for the stiletto as a death weapon, discovers the deception and tries to get his evidence back to Germany.

Farber is a professional spy. The other German spies working in England are rank amateurs; Farber has to eliminate them if they see his face.

The spies trying to catch Farber are also little more than amateurs. Percy Goldiman’s specialty is medieval history; before the war Frederick Bloggs was an inspector with Scotland Yard.

The unlikely pair come up with a scheme for getting a photograph of Farber.

Eye of the Needle contains no great philosophical truths, but Follett gets his psychological truths right.

Ordinary people rising to the occasion make this mystery-thriller extraordinary.

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
Arbor House, ©1978. 313 p.
1978 bestseller #10. My grade: A-

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni