Author : Tom Rob Smith
Publication Date : April 29, 2008 (Hardcover)
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
No. of pages : 448
The Story :
It is 1953. Stalinist Russia is adamant at being a utopian state where equality and contentment are the core of its existence. For where contentment thrives, there could be no crime or evil, the spawns of Western capitalism.
Leo Demidov is an officer of the MGB, the state secret police and guardian of these ideals. Leo believes in the system and sees the necessity of arresting anyone that is remotely suspected of undermining those very goals. Unfortunately in an environment that breeds mistrust, Leo falls victim to suspicion as well.
With a humiliating demotion in which he and his wife, Raisa, are shipped to a small town and his parents sent to live in squalor, Leo comes to terms with finally realizing the futility and wrongness of the communist system.
Meanwhile, the impossible has been happening. Children are being murdered across one side of the country and all murders are brutally done in the same fashion. A serial killer is on the loose, but authorities refuse to consider the possibility of a Western style criminal in their midst.
To survive emotionally, Leo must have a purpose. With a strong patriotic sense despite his disappointment in the government, Leo with his wife, Raisa, make it their personal missions to stop the murders and prove the existence of an insane killer, one no one wants to admit to.
If I were to list books that have made an impression on me, Child 44 would definitely make that list. It opens with a gripping first chapter which promises to keep you glued to the book ’til its end.
Tom Rob Smith does an admirable job of depicting the Soviet Union under the dangerous and repressive regime of Stalin with vivid descriptions of a dystopian society (only this was real) blanketed in fear, mistrust, and poverty. His well-reasearched background aptly describes Stalinist Russia where its control-paranoid government assumed guilt until innocence was proven so that most of those arrested were summarily sentenced without adequate trial. Moreover, in the pursuit of contentment and equality, ideals of a communist society, it was inconceivable for the system to admit to the existence of crime outside the political sphere; hence criminal acts such as serial killing was an aberrant phenomenon maintained to be strictly a by-product of Western freedom and capitalism and therefore cannot exist logically in a communist state.
It is in this environment that his character, Leo, must root out a serial killer, defying official state denials of the existence of such a criminal. Leo, is an ardent believer of the Soviet system. Everything Leo works for is for the collective good. As a ranking officer of the KGB’s predecessor, the MGB, he flushes out dissident citizens or those deemed to be dangerous to the state’s equilibrium and ideals. But when Leo suddenly realizes that his latest prisoner was undoubtedly innocent, his purpose of helping maintain the perfect state crashes to meaninglessness. A real patriot at heart and despite a humiliating demotion, he decides to still have faith in his country , just not in his government, and sets about making a personal mission of rooting out a serial child killer, despite the dangers of incurring the disapproval of the MGB.
Smith injects great realism in this book. His very much flawed hero deals with events that rarely reward his efforts, believably true in such a milieu. Moreover, he draws from genuine events in Russian history such as the Holodomor, the horrendous famine between 1932-1933 where millions, especially in the Ukraine, perished of starvation. Accounts have mentioned numerous cases of cannibalism at this time. These, the Gulags, the excesses of party leaders, the general misery and hopelessness were hushed behind an Iron Curtain which trapped all that did not conform to the Communist ideals of a utopia. The angle of the serial killer is patterned after a true-to-life Soviet child murderer, Andrei Chikatilo, nicknamed The Butcher of Rostov or The Red Ripper, who sexually abused, tortured, and murdered women and children, from 1978-1990. The author simply borrows his story and places it within the timeframe of 1953.
The writing is predominantly narrative; characters’ spoken lines aren’t many and are all in italics, a rather uncommon lay-out which veers from the traditional presentation of a dialogue. It’s refreshingly different but it works quite well.
As a debut novel, Child 44 is superb. The strongest asset of this book is it’s well developed atmosphere. The setting is palpable, the characters and events seem so real that I could not stop turning the pages until I reached the end at 3:30 a.m. However, it isn’t perfect and sadly, events toward the ending came out a bit contrived and questionable which tarnished the reading experience a bit. It is just a teeny blight, however, not enough to render the book a disappointment. In fact, other readers may be perfectly happy with its conclusion. Overall, a marvelous, marvelous read!
My Mark : Outstanding! (Would have merited Excellence, if not for that little smudge)