Friday, December 05, 2008

Life is fun and I wish you were here

Most crime series continue past their expiration rate into decadence. There are exceptions and among the most painful is the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr. The original trilogy, now packaged as Berlin Noir, features Gunther as a PI in Nazi Germany and then in the immediate aftermath of the war. Kerr recently wrote another book and has another is in the works. What was particularly appealing about the first books was the claustrophobic feeling of dread creating by the Nazi backdrop.

In Child 44, Tom Rob Smith has written a similarly excellent portrayal of crime investigation in a totalitarian state, but the state in this case is Stalinist Russia. Leo Stepanovich Demidov begins the story as a war hero now serving in the secret police. When his superiors prevent him from investigating a murder of a child by pursuing someone he learns is innocent , he begins to question the state and pursue his own agenda.

Kerr's books emphasized the dread the state created and Smith serves up plenty of that, but he also provides an equal dose of terror. The state Smith portrays considers all they arrest to be guilty and they arrest quite a few people, often due to whim or grudges. Torture is a run of the mill activity. There is so much destruction it is a wonder there are any people left standing at the end of the book. Still it is a reminder of how horrid the Stalinist state truly was. The oppressive East German regime of The Lives of Others is the liberalized version of the liberalized version of the state in this book.

The book was long listed for the Booker which is a rare accolade for a crime novel. I suspect it was the depiction of the Stalinist era as well as the effect on interpersonal relationships that won him the honor. The relationship between Leo and his wife plays out quite differently than in other genre books as do the relationships between superiors and inferiors. Politics in the office are a tad more dangerous than in the LAPD. There is so much good about what Smith does that you can't really complain about the fact that the big reveal will be fairly obvious to crime novel fans. The final elements of the ending will cheer fans of the Berlin Noir series.

This is a debut novel which makes it all the more remarkable. We will have to wait for the sophomore effort, but it looks like we have a new author about whom to get excited.

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