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By Tom Rob Smith

Grand Central Publishing ($24.99)
ISBN-10: 0446402389
ISBN-13: 978-0-446-40238-5

Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel

The Soviet Union in 1953 was not a pleasant place to be. No one could be trusted, not even those with the closest ties. The smallest infraction, the tiniest deviation from acceptable behavior, could send a man, woman, even a child of twelve to prison, or worse. Anyone arrested was automatically judged guilty, and extreme means would be used on those who did not properly confess. In this "classless" society, the workers went hungry and lived in squalid, crowded conditions, while the Party officials had access to the best of everything. There was no need of a police force, because as far as the Party was concerned, there was no crime. And when a crime could absolutely not be denied, the guilty party was quickly selected, made to confess, and executed.

Leo Stepanovich Demidov was one of the elite, a high-ranking agent of the State Security Force, the MGB, known for his ruthlessness to those accused of crimes against the State, no matter who they were. Things were absolutely black and white to him -- until the day a friend asked for his help in proving the man’s son was murdered. Leo followed the Party line, and finally the grieving father, Fyodor, apparently accepted the decision that the boy’s death was accidental.

All Leo ever wanted was to serve his country, but when his second in command, Vasili Nikitin, a man even more rigorous in his beliefs than Leo, committed a particularly brutal act, his faith was shaken to the core. Vasili recognized this weakness and exploited it.

The case of Fyodor’s son weighed on his mind. Despite the formidable and potentially lethal opposition from the State, and the personal vendetta by Vasili, Leo decided he would track down the child killer and make him pay. When Leo finally lost everything he’d considered important, he had nothing left to lose, and it was only then that he began to realize what was really important in life.

This book has received high praise, deservedly so. The writing is excellent, even though the subject matter is disturbing. It is not easy to read, and one will probably develop sympathy for the people of Russia who had to live under such stifling and deadly conditions.

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