In Gorky Park, the first novel, he is a chief investigator for the Soviet Militsiya in Moscow, where he is in charge of homicide investigations. In the sequels, he takes on roles varying from a militiaman to a worker on a fish processing ship in the arctic.
Born into the nomenklatura, Arkady is the son of Red Army General Kiril Renko, an unrepentant Stalinist also known as "the Butcher", who sees Arkady as a bitter failure for choosing the simple life of a policeman over a military career, or even a career in the Communist Party. Arkady was also never able to forgive himself for indirectly and unwittingly helping his mother commit suicide (he helped her gather the rocks she used to drown herself with in the lake at their family estate when he was a young boy). Wary of the official lies of Soviet society, Arkady exposes corruption and dishonesty on the part of influential and well-protected members of the elite, regardless of the consequences. When exposed to Western capitalist society, he finds it to be equally corrupt and returns to the Soviet Union. Despite this, and his own tough nature, he emerges as a man capable of displaying both compassion and a faith in the future.
The first three books published between 1981 and 1992 form a trilogy culminating with the fall of the Soviet Union, at the August Coup in 1991. The action in Gorky Park takes place in the Soviet Union and in the US, Polar Star on board a Soviet fishing vessel in the Bering Sea, and Red Square in West Germany and the Glasnost-era Soviet Russia. Havana Bay is set in Cuba; Wolves Eat Dogs is set in Moscow and in the areas affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Stalin's Ghost, published in 2007, returns Arkady to a Russia now presided over by Vladimir Putin, followed by Three Stations published in 2010  and Tatiana in 2013.
The Arkady Renko novels
(with years of publication)
- Gorky Park (1981)
- Polar Star (1989)
- Red Square (1992)
- Havana Bay (1999)
- Wolves Eat Dogs (2004)
- Stalin's Ghost (2007)
- Three Stations (2010)
- Tatiana (2013)
- Child 44 with Leo Demidov
- O'Brien, Timothy L. The New York Times (August 6, 2007). Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko series: A trail of clues to the Russian soul
- Wroe, Nicholas, The Guardian (March 26, 2005). Crime Pays
- See, Carolyn, Washington Post (September 3, 2010). "Three Stations," the new thriller by Martin Cruz Smith, author of "Gorky Park"
- Gorky Park, a 1983 film based on the first novel