Tom Rob Smith, Child 44 (2008)

If you need a blood-curdling, fast-paced thriller in an unusual setting, look no further. I hardly breathed through the whole book, because every time the plot seemed to release its grip on the poor hero, another twist was sure to make my heart skip a beat. A perfect choice if you’re afraid of flying and must take your mind off a long trip, for example (hey, it gives me a meme idea: the perfect circumstances to read some books!). But I warn you, it’s not for the squeamish.

Ahem, I’m sure you’d love to know more about the plot itself. I won’t be saying much about it, except that it involves a serial killer and grisly children murders (nothing sexual about it, if you don’t like that sort). But what I loved most is the setting: 1954 Stalinist Russia. The place on earth where political terror and paranoia ruled. Where criticizing the government even in your dreams could lead you to Gulag camps for decades, where spouses were spying on one another, where children could denounce their parents. Where crime was not even thinkable, because in a workers’ paradise it could only be the sign of decadent Western treason, to be treated like anti-government activity. By definition, a Soviet serial killer was a paradox, and to investigate such a crime was a treason punishable by death.

The second twist to the usual thriller is that the hero is no innocent: he’s a secret policeman himself, which means that he has to be loyal to the terror system and that he not only knows how it works, but (willingly at first) participates to arbitrary arrests, confessions under duress and condemnations without trials to death or worse. How will this guy evolve to acknowledge the possibility that something is wrong in the system he is meant to defend? This is only one of the many moral dilemmas that make this thriller really innovative.

Beyond pure entertainment, I loved to see how precise research was woven into the plot (at one point, the mere presence of a telephone in the room of a dissident makes the hero realize that the man must be a mole working for the secret police – no dissident could get the luxury of a phone!). It gave more than an illustration of what terror means, it shows you how it feels to be unable to trust even your loved ones.

The only weakness is that the resolution reads too much like a happy ending to be entirely believable. But I can excuse it for the sake of conventions.

And if you want a real heart-warmer, the plot is not a figment of an overheated imagination: Tom Rob Smith was inspired by the true serial crimes of a so-called Rostov ripper. Duh, I should have read that for Halloween, not before Christmas!

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