Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Stalin’s Soviet Union is officially a paradise where citizens live free from crime and fear only one thing: the all-powerful state and its ‘apparatchiks’. Defending this system is idealistic security officer Leo Demidov, a poster-boy handsome war hero who believes in the iron fist of the law. Still, when a murderer starts to kill at will and Leo dares to investigate, the State’s obedient servant finds himself punished – demoted and exiled. Now, with only his cold wife at his side, Leo must fight to uncover shocking truths about a killer and a country where “crime” as such doesn’t exist.
Will Leo finally start to question his blind loyalty to the Stalinist system and the State Security force, the M.G.B.? Will he decide that crime can happen anywhere because it is part of human nature?
What I liked:
This novel was a compelling detective story that I read in the proverbial single sitting. Ok, these were two in fact but I was so looking forward to that next evening and I was so eager to finish the book that it might count as one.
The setting was very well-done, in perfect accordance with scary stories I’ve heard from my mum and grandma. Yes, they had the bad luck to be born in Ukraine ( which officially belonged to Poland before IIWW and then was swiftly annexed by the Soviets cooperating with Hitler) and experience at first hand the horrors of Stalin’s rule. The man-induced famine, the war, the day-to-day spy paranoia, informers lurking around every corner, people being sent to prison, tortured and murdered for virtually nothing, families being torn apart by the system – believe me, it was no picnic. Just as Robert Harris used a detective to unpick the true nature of Nazi totalitarianism in Fatherland, so Smith uses a murder mystery to explore Stalinism. He does it very well.
The plot revolves around a murderer who can continue killing because the Soviet system denies having such capitalist social problems as murder or prostitution. Despite an omnipresent secret police force, knowing everything about everyone, they are not equipped and not interested in handling a serial killer. Children are murdered and mutilated across the country, but the local authorities dare not report them as murders, so there is no way the central authorities can register what is going on. The killings are treated as the acts of “deviants”, homosexuals or mentally retarded people, never of “normal” healthy Soviet citizens. In this and much else, Smith is elaborating on the case of Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered over 50 people in the 70s and 80s before he got caught.
Overall I felt Smith was at his best when showing how silence and fear breed ignorance: the inability to tell the truth corroded the very fibre of people’s relationships. Love itself was tarnished, family bonds were deliberately weakened. So Leo learned, among other things, that his beautiful, obedient wife only married him out of fear which bordered hatred – she was too afraid to say ‘no’ to a powerful apparatchik. His parents have never talked about the secret of his childhood and he never asked them any questions either. Potential witnesses of ugly crimes preferred to keep mum out of fear that their words might become their death sentence.
What I didn’t like:
After finishing the book I felt that the resolution was really too pat for such a messy story. Of course I can’t tell you more because it would be a major spoiler; just let me say that it seemed as if Smith was in a hurry to tie up all the threads nicely, preferably during one scene, and finally get this novel over with.
It also bugged me that the author never revealed the true reasons of insane hatred Vassily, the main baddie, nourished for Leo and his entire family. Was it just jealousy? Was it something more? I admit I wanted it to be something more and I was left slightly disappointed.
A better-than-average thriller/whodunit written in a very readable style and featuring an original pair of protagonists; something not only for the fans of novels set in the notorious Stalinist period. I am going to continue the series for sure. Perhaps I will even watch the movie.