This thriller has sold over 1.5 million copies and has been shortlisted for or won over 20 awards. The cover proudly proclaims that it is NPR's (I understand that this is the National Public Radio network of the US) top 100 thrillers of all time.
The book starts with young Pavel and his younger brother Andrei hunting a cat in a Ukrainian forest to try to keep themselves from starving.
Twenty years later Leo is a war hero and an officer in Stalin's feared MGB. His job is to 'investigate' denunciations which really means to arrest suspects, arrange torture to extract confessions and arrange for their imprisonment or execution. The system must be perfect which means that once a man is denounced he must be guilty. This is the perfect system for Leo's jealous underling, Vasily, to win promotion by denouncing his boss's wife. Demoted and sent away from Moscow, Leo and his wife start to investigate a series of child murders.
Thus this book is set in the paranoid last days of the Stalin regime (and the Beria regime after his death and the early days of the Khruschev regime after Kruschev's coup) and there is a lot of backbiting and betrayal but somehow I never felt the atmosphere of the novel recreated the sense of paranoia and suspicion and mistrust and general darkness that there must have been. 'Nobody can be trusted' is therefore more useful as a plot device that an ethos. Equally, Leo and his wife fall out because his job entails arresting, torturing and executing mostly innocent people but you don't get the feeling that this is a major flaw in his own character.
The plot is standard. It is not a whodunnit in any sense of the word: there are no clever deductions by the detective: he works out, long after the reader, that the killer of many children in different towns often near railway tracks must be a man who has access to travel. All he then has to do is to work our which two factories regularly exchange people and scan their personnel files. He's still late. We have been introduced to the killer half way through the book. The odd peculiarities of the killer's MO are never properly explained and even the final twist I anticipated long before it came.
I also hated the writing. The author uses the word 'would've' with distressing frequency, not in a dialogue nor even as characterised POV narration but in the standard author voice.
This is a standard thriller; nothing special. I wish I hadn't bought the whole trilogy!
March 2014; 470 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57