How to you investigate a crime, when even the possibility of crime does not exist? In Stalin’s Soviet Union in the years following the Second World War, the illusion of the state was that of a worker’s Utopia. Criminals were a part of the horrors of a Capitalist society, so to even suggest that something as serious as murder could occur, might sentence you and your family to a gulag or to execution. Defending this paradise was the MGB, the State Security Force, and one of its best and most dedicated members is Leo Demidov. Demidov, a former war hero has prospered under Stalin, with a lovely wife, Raisa, and a luxury apartment in Moscow, yet he risks everything to discover the truth behind a series of child killings.
In his debut novel, author Tom Rob Smith has crafted a literary thriller, delicately balancing the crime elements with the socio-political themes of the era. The oppressive atmosphere in Soviet Russia adds a great deal of tension to the novel, as Leo struggles to discover the killer before there is another victim or Leo is arrested to prevent further inquiries. The reader can feel Leo’s fear and frustration as the authorities and ideals he worked so hard to protect are now turned against him. Much of the novel is very dark and gritty, both in its depiction of life under Stalin and in the actions of the serial killer. I was both surprised and horrified to discover the novel had been inspired by the real life murderer Andrei Chikatilo, who killed over 50 women and children in Russia during the 1980’s.
The novel works as a spine tingling thriller, a tract against inhumanity of absolute political power and perhaps most importantly, a morality tale about the courage it takes to challenge authority in order to do what is right.