"Gorky Park" author defects

Even a bestselling writer can't afford to get too creative.

Published July 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The flap copy for Martin Cruz Smith's "Havana Bay" proclaims his latest novel to be "the most spellbinding tale since 'Gorky Park.'" But if Random House thinks Smith is on such a roll, why did they let him defect to Simon & Schuster?

It may be that Smith's bestsellers simply aren't selling robustly enough. Smith isn't as prolific as, say, Stephen King (who writes so many books he can afford to take a few chances); and to complicate his case, the Mill Valley, Calif., native has an experimental side, one that may not have gone over so well with his former publishers. Even successful writers of commercial fiction feel pressure to toe the line, especially when they need to justify their large advances. (Scott Turow, for example, has dutifully returned to a more conventional legal thriller format with his new book, "Personal Injuries," after tackling the morally complex legacy of the '60s in "The Laws of Our Fathers" two years ago.) "The large, free-ranging sort of book I try to write demands a bold and ambitious publisher," Smith said in the Simon & Schuster press release Tuesday announcing his new book deal.

Smith hasn't included his greatest draw, the Russian detective Arkady Renko, in all of his books. Between "Gorky Park" (1981) and "Polar Star" (1989), for instance, Smith put Renko on an eight-year sabbatical. In the meantime he wrote "Stallion Gate," a fictitious account of the first nuclear project in New Mexico, and "Night Wing," a horror story about bats. After Renko returned to work briefly in the early '90s with the thrillers "Polar Star" and "Red Square," Smith put him on leave once more so that he could write the 1996 historical novel about a female mine worker, "Rose."

Even though this year's "Havana Bay" marked Renko's return and has received almost unanimous praise, it only reached No. 17 on the New York Times extended bestseller list before dropping off. "It didn't do as well as we had hoped," Random House executive publicity director Carol Schneider told Salon Books. "We basically made a business decision about Martin. Sometimes a publisher and an agent don't see eye to eye on how a book will draw. But we really regret losing him." Translation: We offered him a more modest advance than he thought he deserved, and he ankled us.

Simon & Schuster picked up Smith's next effort, a World War II novel, with a Renko book to follow it up. Simon & Schuster publisher David Rosenthal told Salon Books that Smith is part of the house's effort to bring in more writers who appeal to male audiences, including Ed McBain ("The Big Bad City"), David Martin ("Pelikan"), Stephen Hunter ("Dirty White Boys") and Drew Huebner ("American by Blood"). "We're very, very pleased to have Martin Cruz Smith," he said.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

MORE FROM Craig Offman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------