Once Leo and his wife are banished to a town in the Ural Mountains, where another murder is committed, the narrative whips into action as a fugitive drama. The language becomes leaner, the style more fluid and cinematic, as Leo's forbidden investigation causes more innocent people to suffer and transforms this onetime war hero into a criminal. In a society riven by fear and mistrust, even a serial killer seems less threatening than a man who has learned to think for himself.
Marilyn Stasio - New York Times Book Review
Set in the Soviet Union in 1953, this stellar debut from British author Smith offers appealing characters, a strong plot and authentic period detail. When war hero Leo Stepanovich Demidov, a rising star in the MGB, the State Security force, is assigned to look into the death of a child, Leo is annoyed, first because this takes him away from a more important case, but, more importantly, because the parents insist the child was murdered. In Stalinist Russia, there's no such thing as murder; the only criminals are those who are enemies of the state. After attempting to curb the violent excesses of his second-in-command, Leo is forced to investigate his own wife, the beautiful Raisa, who's suspected of being an Anglo-American sympathizer. Demoted and exiled from Moscow, Leo stumbles onto more evidence of the child killer. The evocation of the deadly cloud-cuckoo-land of Russia during Stalin's final days will remind many of Gorky Park and Darkness at Noon, but the novel remains Smith's alone, completely original and absolutely satisfying.
Grisly, gruesome, and gory are just three ways to describe this debut novel by young British screenwriter Smith. While adapting a short story by sf writer Jeff Noon, Smith came across the true account of Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who after killing more than 50 women and children was executed in 1994. His story inspired Smith to write this grim, 1953-set novel, which ties together just about all of the worst aspects of the Stalinist regime. The Ukrainian famine and the unrelieved horror of the gulag, among other historical hooks, add to the saga of ex-soldier and police official Leo Demidov, who dissects the morbid clues left by the killer. The paradox of crime in a workers' paradise denies any legitimacy to Leo's investigation, since, by definition, such repellent crimes are impossible. With some 20 foreign sales to date and film rights already in Ridley Scott's hands, this successor to Hannibal Lector's lurid mantle has nonstop plotting, a nonstop pace, and even a surprise ending. Horror genre readers will thrill to it; others may be advised to ask for a barf bag as well as their date due slip. Suspense collections in large libraries will likely need several copies to fill waiting lists.
Barbara Conaty - Library Journal
During the terror of Stalin's last days, a secret policeman becomes a detective stalking a serial killer in a debut novel from a shockingly talented 28-year-old Brit. Skillfully drawing on the only totalitarian milieu more frightening than the Nazis, Smith opens the book in a village of starving kulaks, where two young brothers set out in the snow to trap the last local cat that hasn't been eaten. Myopic young Andrei throws himself on the frantic feline only to have both cat and older brother Pavel snatched by a mysterious man who bags them and disappears, leaving Andrei to stumble home alone. Both Pavel and Andrei figure later in a plot that shifts to the early '50s as Father Stalin has begun his final mad purges. War hero MGB officer Leo Stepanovich Demidov begins to realize, during the course of performing his brutal State Security duties, that the death of the four-year-old son of a younger associate may not have been as accidental as the official report suggested. Family and neighbors claim that the child was brutally assaulted before being left on the railroad tracks. The problem for good soldier Leo is that in the Glorious Workers' Paradise, where every citizen has everything he needs, there is no such thing as crime. There are only attacks by the corrupt outside world. Leo has another problem. His beautiful wife Raisa, whom he suspects of infidelity, has been charged by Leo's vicious rival Vasili with espionage, and Leo has been ordered to verify that claim. Learning too late that the innocent and faithful Raisa fears rather than loves him, rattled by Vasili's treachery, knowing that he is damaged goods, Leo counts himself lucky to be exiled to duty in a hick town where hediscovers further murders and begins a hair-raising hunt for the perpetrator. Nerve-wracking pace and atmosphere camouflage wild coincidences.
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