On 14 February 1994, Andrei Chikatilo was escorted from his prison cell to a soundproof room and executed by a single shot behind his right ear.
What had this man done to warrant such a punishment?
We have all heard of “Jack the Ripper’, but there was another ripper in history that has a far more bloody and horrifying trail than even him. Chikatilo was the famous ‘Red Ripper.’ A man responsible for the deaths of an estimated 52 women and children.
How could this man get away with murder for so long? What society would allow such a person to slip through their hands?
Leo Demidov is a feared man. He’s the man who shines a torch on you at 4am; the man who squints at you when you make an off-colored joke; the man that pleasantly asks you to confess because your death is certain regardless. He is an MGB Agent operating from the famous KGB headquarters in Moscow, the Lubyanka, where prisoners enter but never exit. He believes in his cause. He believes in it with his entire heart and soul. He has to believe in it because even a stray moment of doubt would mean that all the acts of terror and violence he has had to commit have been for nothing. So he does whatever it takes to find the answers he wants.
And then a child dies. It’s the child of his colleague and the family needs to understand that crime simply doesn’t exist in the Russia. Even if it did, it is always connected to the West. They must understand this because if they don’t, they are traitors to the state. They are accusing their efficient and well-oiled government of being incompetent.
But the stone is already thrown and the glass window now broken. Leo’s doubts are starting to surface and everything in his life is about to change. And if he’s to catch this killer for the sake of the country’s citizens, he may have to betray the state in the process.
Leo, as a character, has been extremely well developed. The author takes extreme care to make his transition realistic from an indoctrinated soldier into a rogue. To a degree, a certain amount of the book will always be unbelievable to me. I simply can not grasp the degree of death, suffering and persecution that the characters face. However, the real skill of Smith is in making the actions of the characters understandable. Smith starts Leo off as the perfect tool of the state, so when he does start to ‘wake up’ I couldn’t help but almost cheer him on. With each moment of truth, I felt like he was truly having his life turned upside down and that his decisions were immense struggles for him.
His transition into a rebel is helped along by his wife, Raisa, who offers a stubborn and strong position against the state. In a way, she embodies the modern reader. Compassionate but also disapproving. Fallible but judgmental of the extreme horrors she has seen committed. However, she felt frustrating at times. Her backstory was interesting but I never truly understood why she married Leo. When she and Leo bond over their rebellion to the state, she reveals a personality that is so strong. And yet, to have been so passive for so many years doesn’t ring true. Leo shows such surprise that it’s clear she has never shown this side before. Her perfect act as a doting, simpering wife just doesn’t hit the mark. Leo does need a ‘sidekick’ and someone to push him into full blown treason. But perhaps that role would have been better filled by a mistress, girlfriend or even child. While Raisa interested me, I don’t think she was as well developed as Leo.
I wont comment too much on the main antagonist, Andrea Chikatilo, as the true crimes he committed were so extreme that justification can’t ever occur. Smith himself admits that he can’t ever truly understand the reasons for such horror. However, the reason that he did pick, just didn’t seem plausible. It relied on a connection so coincidental that I just didn’t buy into it. His lack of justification, if anything, made more sense to me. Some humans just commit violence for the sake of it. To connect his motives to such a distant event, in some ways, didn’t give Leo the credit that he deserves as an investigator and a good human. Personally, I think it reduces Leo’s fight for humanity into a personal conflict and for the context of the setting, this didn’t fit well.
Another area that I think needed some development was the progression of the main plot. It takes around about half of the book for the actual murder case to take off. This isn’t too bad as a reader as there is so much context for Smith to set up. However, upon reflecting on the pace of the novel, this seems a bit excessive. Smith perhaps had to make a firmer choice about whether he was writing a crime and investigation novel or a revolution novel. Both are intriguing but the two entwined in one book is a bit hard for pacing and context building.
I do have to commend Smith on his research and for his ability to find such an interesting piece of history and create a solid, strong novel from so many complicated events. I felt at times transported by the horror, romance and intrigue of the plot and the setting. My points above do still stand, so I have reduced my initial score of 8.5 down. However, this is an excellent book and well worth the read!