From Smith (Child 44, 2008), an intense thriller set in the Soviet Union during the tumultuous days that followed the death of Stalin.
When Khrushchev delivered a speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, admitting to the paranoid excesses of his predecessor Stalin’s regime, he did much to loosen the bonds of fear that kept Soviet society in line. However, in this novel, the speech also triggers a wave of vicious reprisals against secret policemen who were responsible for some particularly brutal acts during Stalin’s reign of terror. Among those in danger is Leo Demidov, the reformed security officer with a conscience who tracked down a serial killer in Child 44. In order to redeem his brutal past, Leo has leveraged the official attention he received from catching the child killer to create a specialized homicide unit, something that would have been unthinkable under Stalin. After investigating the death of a former prison guard and having a conversation with a terrified former colleague who also winds up dead, Leo begins to put the pieces together, eventually realizing that those targeted are connected to the case of a dissident priest, a case to which Leo himself was intimately connected. When the danger expands to include the patchwork family Leo has been trying desperately to hold together, he must confront the terrible mistakes of his past to save his adopted daughter. Smith’s ability to summon the paranoia and tumult of the post-Stalin period in all its dingy glory is truly astounding, as is his detailed knowledge of both the Soviet-era bureaucracy and its underworld. His characters, from the relentless Leo, to the petty criminals who populate the underworld, to a lonely guard aboard a frozen prison ship, are perfectly formed. His depiction of dismal Soviet society feels uncannily real, and his taut plot barrels onward like a loaded prisoner train headed for the Gulag. Finally, Leo is a fantastic creation: relentless, decent and wonderfully complicated.
A superb thriller, full of pitch-perfect atmosphere.