Having recently read Agent 6 which is the most recent novel by Tom Rob Smith, I wanted to read more of his books. This is his debut novel, it is set in Russia in the last days of Stalin. Pervading the whole novel is the paranoia and hardship associated with living in Russia during those times you really start to appreciate how hard it must have been.
The book begins in Russia in the 1930’s, it is desperate winter and villages are starving. Two boys are in the woods trying to catch a cat to eat, but someone catches them. One boy returns, the other is never seen again.
We jump forward to the 1950’s and Leo Demidov, an MGB agent, is investigating the murder of a young boy on the railway tracks. Murders are not allowed to happen in Russia at that time, they only happen in capitalist countries so it is recorded as an accident and barely investigated. Leo has other things on his mind, a jealous subordinate makes a power play and threatens his life and the life of his wife Raisa. Exiled to a bleak city in the Urals, Leo becomes aware that other children have been found murdered in the same way. He has stumbled upon a serial killer, who is continuing to kill and getting away with it as his existence will not be acknowledged by the state. Leo is determined to get to the end of the trail, but it may come at a high cost to him and his wife. Whilst investigating the case he is forced to examine his life, his relationship and the way of life he has been living.
This is a gripping read, you are thrust into life in Russia in those times and the pervading fear that hung over everyone. You had to be careful who you talked to, even your closest friends may betray you. What is even more frightening is that the story of the serial killer is actually based on a true story who got away with killing children for years because of the system. It portrays a stark failure of the system and how difficult it was to get the cases investigated in those times.
Other reviews you may be interested in: Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith