Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: A Soviet Serial Killer and a Secret Speech Provides Suspense in Tom Rob Smith's Two Thrillers

Andrei Chikatilo is not as well known as his fellow serial killers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, and if the Soviets had their way, no one would have ever heard of him.

According to the Soviets, crime did not exist in their worker’s paradise. But as the dead bodies piled up, the killer who came to be known as The Rostov Ripper was finally caught and convicted of brutally murdering 52 women and children between the years 1978 and 1990.

Chikatilo told the Soviet court that he performed a service for the Soviet system by eliminating what he called “worthless people.” Chikatilo was executed in 1994.

HBO made a good film about Chikatilo called Citizen X and Tom Rob Smith has written a good fictional account of the Chikatilo case, called Child 44.

The 30-year-old writer said he was researching a screenplay when he came across the Chikatilo case.

“The more I dug into the case, the more clear it became that he evaded capture not because he was ingenious but because the Soviet criminal system was reluctant to admit he even existed,” Smith wrote in his web page

“Their preconceptions about their society were as important, if not more important than stopping these terrible murders,” Smith continued. “Reading the nonfiction account of the investigations was incredibly frustrating. My reaction was so strong I knew I wanted to tell my own version of the story.”

Smith wrote that he moved the story back in time, from the 1980s to the 1950s, reasoning that the pressure on the hero would be greater under Stalin’s regime.

The hero in Child 44 is a war hero turned MGB officer named Leo Demidov.
The MGB, which later became the KGB, was the state security service that the Soviet people justifiably feared. As an MGB officer, Demidov was a privileged man in Stalin’s 1953 Soviet Union.
He lived with his beautiful wife Raisa, who is a teacher, in a comfortable apartment (by Soviet standards). Demidov, his wife and his parents all ate well, shopped in MGB stores and lived a much higher standard of living than the average Soviet worker.

But hero may be the wrong word for Demidov, as he routinely arrests people for political crimes such as owning a Western book or speaking critically of the state. The unfortunate people that Demidov arrest are often tortured and then executed or shipped off to the Gulags, the cruel and inhuman prison system run by the Soviet state.

When a young boy is found dead on train tracks outside Moscow, apparently hit by a train, the boy’s father, a low-ranking MGB member, insists that his son was chopped up and murdered. Demidov is assigned to explain to the grieving father and his family that they are mistaken. For a brutal crime like that would not, could not, happen in the Soviet Union.

Demidov also has a problem with another MGB officer who claims that a traitor has named Raisa as an associate. To save his career, Demidov has to denounce his wife or risk becoming a suspected traitor as well.

Although his marriage is complicated and strained, Demidov refuses to denounce his wife and he is demoted to a lowly position in the Militia and sent to a small industrial town.

While on duty in this small town he comes across two children who have been mutilated and murdered just like the boy near Moscow. Against the orders of his bosses, Demidov begins to investigate and discovers that the boy killed outside Moscow was the 44th victim of a serial killer.

Demidov fights his former MGB officers and the Soviet system as he tracks down the serial killer.

In Smith’s follow up novel The Secret Speech Demidov has been allowed to form a homicide unit in Moscow. The year is 1956. Stalin is dead and the new Soviet ruler, Nikita Khrushchev, delivers a speech condemning Stalin for his use of state murder and other atrocities.
The secret speech is leaked to the West and within the Soviet Union the people are hearing something new and fresh — criticism of Stalin and the Soviet state.

When former MGB officers are found dead and other MGB officers are threatened by packages that contain photos and records of their past actions, Demidov begins to investigate. Demidov is also left a package that contains evidence of his former work as an MGB officer.

The deaths appear to be in reprisal against Stalin’s secret policemen. Demidov’s investigation leads him to the Vory, the criminal gangs that will later evolve into the Russian Mafia.

Demidov goes undercover as a prisoner and he is transported by a prisoner ship to an isolated and very cold Gulag. He eventually ends up in Hungry during the uprising against the Soviets in 1956.

Smith’s novels bring to mind Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park and his series of thrillers with Militia investigator Arkady Renko, but Smith also gives a nod to Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow, a classic book about the Soviet Union’s forced famine of the Ukraine, as a book that influenced him.

I enjoyed both Child 44 and The Secret Speech. They are good thrillers and the historical backdrop will perhaps introduce younger readers to the inner working of the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union.

Younger readers might even learn to be thankful that the United States and the West won the Cold War.

After reading Smith’s thrillers, one should go on to read Conquest’s book and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, Cancer Ward and The Gulag Archipelago.

1 comment:

  1. I very much enjoyed the first two books and am very much looking forward to the third "Agent 6", the audio book was featured a couple of weeks ago on the Book Report (