I only need a few fingers to count the mysteries and/or thrillers that have, for me, set an exciting and convincing pace from the very first pages that doesn’t let up until an ending which —perhaps most difficult of all to achieve in this genre—doesn’t let down.
Let’s see, there’s Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal.  Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn.  Josephine Tey’s A Daughter of Time.  John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.  Adam Hall’s The Volcanoes of San Domingo.  And Lionel Davidson’s The Rose of Tibet and A Long Way To Shiloh.

I had very high hopes for Tom Rob Smith’s first novel, a mystery thriller set in Stalin’s Russia, called Child 44.  The American pre-pub buzz was about its success in the UK where, in addition to scoring excellent reviews for its high page-to-page thrill quotient, its literary merit was sufficient to earn it a place on the Booker Prize’s long list.

The book apparently began as a screenplay and then became a novel which was, in draft form, critiqued by Robert Towne, who has since written the screenplay for the film which is going to be directed by Ridley Scott in 2010.  (Where is Daniel Craig when Ridley Scott needs him?  The now Bond-branded actor is the embodiment of Child 44‘s flawed-then-damaged protagonist Leo Demidov.)  

There is speculation that Mr. Towne’s input may be responsible for some of the Chinatown-like family chemistry that ends up hobbling rather than illuminating Child 44‘s plot.  

But the reason to read Child 44 isn’t for the mystery or the thrills —which are unquestionably there in greater or lesser degree depending on your tolerance for coincidences— but for the authentically chilling picture it paints about life in the USSR under Stalin.

Child 44 is based on a peculiarly Soviet kind of Catch-22.   In the workers’ paradise of the Soviet Union there could, by definition, be no crime.  Crime is a function of the excesses of capitalism that socialism in one state had to have eradicated. Thus, the only real crimes possible were against the State — and insufficient fervor of belief was high on that list.

So, while the irrelevant and drunken local militias represented what little law enforcement there was for all the very real robberies and rapes and murders, the highly motivated MGB (the KGB’s even uglier domestic twin) policed thought and conduct in cruel and thorough ways that are still hard to stomach reading about in a novel today.  

That said, recent events in Russia aren’t exactly reassuring in this regard. In fact, now that Daniel Craig isn’t available to play Leo, his next best embodiment would be Vladimir Putin.

Child 44 is available in bookstores and on Amazon, but we will all have to wait a while for Andrew Roberts’ latest book Masters and Commanders, which will first be published in the UK later this week.  (Although the sufficiently motivated and the congenitally impatient could order the book from England.)

The massive Masters and Commanders will cover two of the former —Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill— and two of the latter —Chief of Britain’s Imperial General Staff Sir Alan Brooke and US Army COS General George Marshall.

The big news, apparently, will be in the Churchill sections thanks to the kind of serendipitous discovery that researchers dream about.

With a few minutes to kill in the archives at Churchill College, Cambridge, before having to catch a train, Mr. Roberts asked to see the files containing the personal papers of Lionel Burgis — partly out of curiosity just to find out who Mr. Burgis was.

The catalog described him as the deputy secretary to the War Cabinet from 1939-1945. But despite having beavered away so close to the center of power for so many critical years, Mr. Burgis’ name hadn’t managed to surface in any of the major studies of the period.

So Mr. Roberts had absolutely no expectations when he randomly asked to see the Burgis material covering 1941 — maybe there would be something at least remotely related to Pearl Harbor in it.

When the box arrived it seemed no more promising. The musty smell inside indicated that Mr. Roberts was likely the first to open it.

I’m sure you’ve already long since figured out what’s coming…..and here it comes:

‘WC: address entirely new sit: to wh: existed last week,’ I read under a large ’10/XII’ on a page opened at random, ‘disaster in Pac. Pearl Har taken by surprise – maltreated. J complete control Cape Town to Van.’ It was at that moment that I realised that Lawrence Burgis had broken the 1911 Official Secrets Act, and had kept his verbatim notes of Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet. ’10/XII’ meant the Cabinet of Wednesday, 10 December 1941, when ‘WC’ – ie Winston Churchill – reported the events of three days earlier at Pearl Harbour. He was telling his colleagues that they had to address an entirely new situation to that which existed last week, for what was at stake was nothing less than Japanese control of the whole area between Cape Town in South Africa and Vancouver in Canada.

If Burgis had kept the verbatim report for December 1941, I wondered, had he also kept them for all the War Cabinets in which he had sat in as a note-taker? The catalogue seemed to suggest as much, so there could be thousands of such pages, detailing word-for-word what everyone, not just the Prime Minister, had said in Britain’s most senior decision-making body throughout the Second World War.

Burgis had joined the staff of the Cabinet Office in 1918, and he was proud of having been an eyewitness to the history of two World Wars.  It was clear, from the manuscript of his unpublished memoir that was also included in the Cambridge archives, that he knew he was breaking the Official Secrets Act by not destroying all his personal papers as he was required to do.

The result is a trove of Churchilliana.  Mr. Roberts estimates that the Burgis material will yield hundreds of new Churchill quotes, anecdotes, and insights.

On another occasion, Churchill told [South African Prime Minister Jan Christian] Smuts: ‘You are responsible for all our troubles in India – you had Gandhi for years and did not do away with him.’ To which Smuts replied: ‘When I put him in prison – three times – all Gandhi did was to make me a pair of bedroom slippers.’ When the Mahatma went on hunger strike during the war, Churchill told the Cabinet: ‘Gandhi should not be released on the account of a mere threat of fasting. We should be rid of a bad man and an enemy of the Empire if he died.’ Grigg then said that Gandhi was getting glucose in his orange juice, and another cabinet minister said ‘he had oil rubbed into him which was nutritious’, allowing Churchill to claim that ‘it is apparently not a fast merely a change of diet.’

Churchill usually wanted to adopt the most extreme option. In response to the Lidice massacre in Chelmno, Czechoslovakia – in which the Nazis had killed hundreds of villagers in retribution for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich – the prime minister ‘suggested wiping out German villages (three for one) by air attack’, proposing that one hundred bombers would be required to drop incendiaries from low levels in bright moonlight on three unprotected German villages, with the reason announced afterwards. If it was ‘thought worthwhile’, Churchill would give the RAF discretion to carry out such a raid ‘to fit it in when they can’. On this occasion the Cabinet blocked him, and the prime minister concluded: ‘I submit (unwillingly) to the view of the Cabinet against.’

There’s this and more (including a short video of him talking about his discoveries) in the article Mr. Roberts wrote for the Telegraph.

And just to prove that even the greatest of men can have off days, Mr. Roberts quotes WSC’s sunny impressions (from sunny Yalta) of Stalin — the same monster already sitting atop the very real terror state that would shortly overlap the fictional world of Child 44.