By Tom Rob Smith
Grand Central Publishing, 467 pages, $25.99
I get it: Life in the Soviet Union under Stalin and Krushchev was pretty bad. Food was sometimes scarce, spies were everywhere, people got locked up in jail for disloyalty to the State ... I know all that. I read The Gulag Archipelago when I was in High School. It made me more wary of powerful governments than it did of Communism, but whatever -- I'll stipulate that the Soviet Union of that era was not exactly the great workers paradise it was supposed to be. (We had a few problems with repression here at home, too.)
But Child 44, Tom Rob Smith's bestselling 2008 thriller about Leo Demidov, an idealistic Soviet security officer, is still hard to read. Every single person in the Soviet government is corrupt and evil. Every aspect of life is absolutely miserable. There is no hope, just bleakness; the only way anyone can do any good at all is either by mistake or by subversion. Child 44 just drips of the sort of anti-Communist propaganda I was fed in grade school, and while it's a brilliantly constructed crime mystery, I had to put it down every few pages and say:
So I opened the sequel, Agent 6, with some hesitation. These books are long and thick, and some of the references are obscure, so you have to pay attention. And I wasn't sure I wanted to wade through another 467 pages of Commie Plot Nightmare.
But Agent 6 is a pleasant surprise. It's much lower on the bleakness scale and much more of a serious international novel of intrigue, with realistic characters, some good action and (of course) not much sex. I guess they don't do that in Russia. Maybe it's too cold.
The plot actually stretches from the Cold War to the present, but the heart of the matter occurs in 1965, when out hero Demidov (dismissed from the security service in some sort of disgrace, downgraded to a minor plant manager with a crummy apartment) discovers that his schoolteacher wife, Raisa, has been asked to take her students on a friendship tour of the United States. Of course, the couple's two teenage daughters will be going along -- but not poor Leo. He's been such a bad boy that he can't leave the country.
Then there's an African American singer who was a huge star -- and an outspoken commie -- in the U.S. in the 30s and 40s, but has since been blacklisted and driven to poverty by the American version of Soviet repression. He, like Leo, has a shitty apartment in a slum. But the singer, Jesse Austin, gets invited by some shady crew that may be part Soviet propaganda machine and may be part FBI/CIA op, to sing at the friendship event -- except that he's not really officially invited, so he stands outside on a box -- and winds up dead. One of Leo's daughters is arrested for the murder, Leo's wife is killed along the way -- and the former Soviet cop spends the rest of his life trying to figure out what happened (and for his efforts is exiled to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan).
What happened is a good tale. The parallels between the way the Americans treated a one-time commie and the commies treated a one-time cop make this a lot more intellectually interesting than the first book. The scenes (and lessons) from the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan are a good real, and relevant to anyone who thinks it's every possible for a foreign nation to invade that country. The depressing ending is about what you'd expect from a writer who makes his living describing depressing conditions and sad people, but it works.
I'm changing my mind about Tom Rob Smith. And while this is being sold as the last one, I suspect he's got another Leo Demidov story in him somewhere.