I found this in a pile of books on the street being given away by my neighbour. I don’t usually read thrillers, due to my strangely limited appetite for raped female corpses, which seem to be integral to the genre, but the price was right.
Also I note that this is the first thriller to ever make the Booker longlist, so I thought it was worth a whirl. Especially as I was going on a beach vacation, and I feel like this is the kind of book fellow beach goers like to see you reading. (This shows my age: practically everybody was reading their phones). In any case, one can always skip the rape scenes.
I need not have been concerned, as this was all about child murder not women murder, and there was only one rape scene. The first lines are great:
Since Maria had decided to die, her cat would have to fend for itself. She'd already cared for it far beyond the point where keeping a pet made any sense. Rats and mice had long since been trapped and eaten by the villagers. Domestic animals had disappeared shortly after that. All except for one, this cat, her companion which she'd kept hidden. Why hadn't she killed it? She needed something to live for; something to protect and love - something to survive for. She'd made a promise to continue feeding it up until the day she could no longer feed herself. That day was today. She'd already cut her leather boots into thin strips, boiled them with nettles and beetroot seeds. She'd already dug for earthworms, sucked on bark. This morning in a feverish delirium she'd gnawed the leg of her kitchen stool, chewed and chewed until there were splinters jutting out of her gums
We are in Stalinist Russia, a really fun setting for a crime story, as officially crime did not exist. Stalin held crime to be a result of poverty, which was a result of capitalism, therefore no capitalism meant no crime. Thus while the secret police were enormous, the regular police barely existed. Our hero is a patriotic secret police officer who gets drawn into investigating a child serial killer. It’s fun to watch his certainties collapse, and to visit various bits of Stalin’s empire with him, but things go down hill as Smith tries to resolve the story. We are reduced to car/train chases (clearly written with film options in mind), to deeply unlikely scenes in which terrified villagers risk their lives “for the children” (I haven’t googled it, but based on this alone I’ll put heavy money that the author is British, as British people are creepily obsessed with children); and worst of all the final reveal that the serial killer is SPOLIER ALERT the policeman’s own brother. SNORE.
He even manages a happy ending, with Stalin dying conveniently, allowing some hope for our hero. I learnt a fun fact about Stalin’s death: apparently one cause of his death was the fact that he did not receive specialist medical care, and he didn’t receive this care as he himself had just imprisoned all the specialists. File that under karma or god having a sense of humour.