When Martin Cruz Smith Could No Longer Think With His Fingertips

Martin Cruz Smith and his wife Em.

Marilyn Staso, who reviews crime novels for the New York Times Book Review, says good things today about Martin Cruz Smith’s newest novel The Siberian Dilemma:

“Smith’s lucid prose, surprising imagery and realistic dialogue, as well as his wonderfully quirky characters, all serve his engrossing storytelling. But in the end what linger in your mind are the voices — of people who never knew they had so much to say and never dreamed their voices mattered.”

Smith had been a struggling writer until 1981 when he wrote Gorky Park, a best-selling novel set in Russia that was made into a movie starring William Hurst, Lee Marvin, Brian Dennehy, and Joanna Pacula. He went on to write a succession of more good novels, many set in Russia.

Then a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, described by Pam Bulluck in a moving 2013 Times piece, “Martin Crux Smith Reveals a Twist in His Tale”:

Ingenuity, gumption, and others’ generosity have allowed him to keep working. “Tatiana,'” whose title character is a journalist who writes despite life-threatening dangers, was produced in an especially unusual way, which he also hid from his publisher and editor. In a room with a blue floor and a window glazed with prehistoric creatures, Mr. Smith perched on a wooden stool and spun out words while his wife, Emily, known as Em, typed them into the computer, gave feedback, and made his on-the-spot changes.

Neither was sure they’d succeed. Writers often “think” through their fingertips, not knowing exactly what they’ll create until their hands are at the keyboard. Could Mr. Smith, whose novels braid history, suspense, deadpan humor and subtly surprising characters, write a book one step removed?

“I had a great many doubts,” he confessed. “It’s like playing football, except you’ve got two quarterbacks. It promises confusion, complication, and loss of immediate contact. You want to keep that ball moving, keep that idea within your grasp.”. . .

He has fewer hallucinations, although “yesterday I saw a woman by the stairs who wasn’t there, and a black dog often appears in places where there isn’t one,” he said.

“I’m not who I was since Parkinson’s,” he said. And sometimes, “I don’t find the first word I’m after. But I’ll take the second word, the third word. I’ll take it because I like new ways of expressing things. It makes the work alive.”

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