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Historical Mysteries

Child 44, Tom Rob Smith, Grand Central, $7.99

Tom Rob Smith's beautiful first novel is curiously compelling. It's written with a real haunted eye to the past. Set in Stalinist and post Stalinist Russia, it follows the rise and fall of Leo Demidov, an "MGB" agent who up to the beginning of this narrative believed in everything he did, for "the good of the state". One of the caveats of Stalinst Russia was that there was only crime in the decadent west; because communism was such a perfect society, there was no crime. Of course there is no society without crime; but in Stalinst Russia, the militia investigated crimes, and they were not connected from town to town or province to province in any way. The militia was poorly regarded and mostly run by thugs. A culprit was found and executed - it hardly mattered whether or not they were actually guilty, it only mattered that the case was resolved. Smith thus brilliantly sets up the conundrum of the novel: there is no crime, so when a colleague's son is found murdered, Leo tells the grieving family that the boy's death was due to an accident - he was run over by a train. Leo's conscience isn't even pricked - he feels badly for intruding on the family's grief, but he is mainly irritated that having to call on the grieving family took him away from what he considers a more important case.

Smith skillfully lays in the brush strokes of Leo's life - his success in the MGB has secured good apartments for both himself and his parents; he has a beautiful wife - Leo feels fortunate. Smith then proceeds to cut everything out from under him. Leo's beliefs in the state, in his marriage, and even in his own parents undergo radical yet gradual changes throughout the novel. The first chink occurs when Leo is invited to sit in on an "interrogation" in Lubyanka. As he sees the man he has captured "questioned" by a doctor, he starts to have a sliver of doubt. Then, when he is given a list of apparent traitors to investigate - people the man had named as he was being tortured - they assign Leo the most difficult subject: his own wife, Raisa. The way Leo handles the resolution of his wife's case leads to the discoveries of the rest of the novel, which include a string of child murders, murders exactly like the son of his colleague. Because no murder investigations are permitted, Leo must investigate the cases in secret. At every step of his life, there are choices that cause others to be executed or sent to a gulag; it's apparently unavoidable. Though Leo and Raisa escape a gulag, they do not escape a steady series of degrading humiliations that end with them homeless, desperate and on the run in Soviet Russia. This was not a good place to be.

This is a remarkable book not only because of the vivid setting, but also because of Smith's ability to make Leo and Raisa indelible - and to make the changes they undergo as humans believable - but also because he adds to that a real gift with suspense and plot. Some of the twists are a little too good to be true, but here he's following the trail of master storytellers like Jeffrey Deaver and Michael Connelly. This is a book you absolutely won't forget once you have read it, and having read it, you will no doubt breathe a hearty sigh of relief at your own good fortune not to have lived through the rise of Stalin.

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