Set in Stalin's Soviet Union in 1953, this story is intriguing and insightful. It not only was an excellent crime novel, but it explained how the people of the Soviet Union thought. How they would act to protect themselves in many different ways..
I found it fascinating how each person’s existence was based on their relationships with everyone else around them. Everyone went through life behaving as if the smallest problems with anyone at all could cause an investigation. These were investigations in which the accused was presumed guilty and was never able to prove their innocence, even if they were. The accusation alone made them guilty.
One of the premises of this book is that during Stalin’s reign there was no crime in the Soviet Union. There was no crime because the State said there was no crime. Whatever the state said must be true, even if the facts prove otherwise. There could be no crime because the State promised it’s citizens that it would provide a paradise where all their needs were met. The only way there could be a crime is if the State failed in some way. That was not allowed.
So, in this book there is a serial killer. He is murdering children all over the Soviet Union. They are all found naked, mutilated, with their mouths full of “soil”, and with a string tied around their ankles. There murders are routinely covered up and “solved”. The blame is always placed on some crazy person. A drunkard. A foreigner. A Lunatic. An orphan. All the people who would not cast a shadow on the Soviet system. These people were outside the Soviet system. They were vagrants and problem people.
This is where the protagonist, Leo Demidov, becomes involved. He works at the MGB. This is the predecessor to the KGB. Leo works as an agent who investigates and arrests political dissidents. He goes after the people who take “actions detrimental to the Soviet way of life”. Needless to say, admitting there are multiple murders that have resulted in confessions, yet are all incorrect, is something that is “detrimental to the Soviet way of life”. If one confession is wrong then thousands are suspect. The entire legal system is based on these confessions. It would all fall apart if a coverup is exposed.
There are alternate plot lines taking place for the whole first half of the book. It took quite a while for me to realize which plot line was the main story line. They were all interesting.
Anyway, for reasons unrelated to the murders, Leo falls from favor. He and his wife, Raisa, are arrested and sent to the far eastern regions of The Soviet Union to work. He has a rival at the MGB who has succeeded in setting him up and getting himself promoted.
Leo’s world is shattered. He has dedicated his life to the Soviet Union. He has bought the party line in totality. Now he has nothing. The very system he loved has sent him packing. He now learns to see things and think very differently.
At that time he discovers the body of a murdered child and realizes that the same evidence was present at a murder he covered up in Moscow. He convinces the local militia general that they need to investigate.
The story rolls from there. The killer’s identity and motives eventually are revealed. It is not a big surprise, but the unfurling of the chase was very interesting and exciting.
Something that I found both heart-wrenching and sad was the attitude of the Soviet people and it’s government towards orphans. I have adopted four children from Ukraine. I know what happens to these kids and how they are literally “non-persons”. Yes, “non-persons” is a legal term used to define them. I swear to God.
During the story there were two times that orphans choked me up. One was when the militia arrested an orphan and railroaded him for a child’s murder. The teen boy was executed for a murder he did not commit and was accused of it only because he was an orphan. An easy target.
The second was early in the book. Leo and Vasili are pursuing a “criminal”. Leo catches him, but Vasili ends up executing two of the man’s friends to set an example. The man and woman are executed in front of their two daughters. Leo later has to interrogate Brodsky (the prisoner) in Lubyanka prison. The conversation goes as follows.
“-The children? Mikhail’s daughters? Where are they now?
-They’ve been placed in an orphanage. They’re safe.
An orphanage- was that meant as a joke, was that part of this punishment? No, this man wouldn’t make a joke. He was a believer.
-Have you ever been to an orphanage?
-The girls would’ve had a better chance of surviving if you’d left them on their own.
- The State is looking after them now.”
The State is looking after them now. Yeah, just like it was looking after my four children.The State sucks today. I am sure it sucked much more under Stalin.
This was an excellent book. Especially for a first novel. I will read more of Tom Rob Smith’s work, despite the weird name.