Saturday, May 03, 2008

Child 44 - Tom Rob Smith

Child 44
Tom Rob Smith
Grand Central Publishing


In Russia in 1953, the State claims that they are nearing a utopian society. That means that there is no crime. The existence of habitual criminals, those who are in it for the thrill or the profit, would be a criticism against Stalinism; thus, they do not exist. Any crimes that cannot be completely covered up are attributed to some local individual who is sick, insane, and completely disposable. These individuals are removed from society via execution so that the workers can live in Stalin’s promised paradise.

Leo Demidov was a hero of the Great Patriotic War, and now the ranking officer in his Moscow section of the MGB, the State Security Force. His rank allows him to live in an apartment with his wife, alone, whereas most others live with three generations of a family in two rooms. His parents also have their own apartment, complete with running water and other amenities that are reserved for the elite of society. It’s understood that the wrong word to the wrong person or a glance in the wrong direction can result in arrest, the Gulag, or execution. Arrest never means release; that would be admitting to a mistake by the authorities. Informants are everywhere and paranoia is just survival instinct.

One of Leo’s men, Fyodor, is unwisely making waves. His four-year-old son was found dead near the railroad tracks. Fyodor and his family claim the child was murdered. Leo is dispatched to talk sense to the man. Since there is no crime, there are no murderers. The child was playing near the tracks and had a tragic accident. Leo firmly believes it all as he stares down Fyodor. Not only does Leo believe it, he believes it is essential for the security of the State and for the safety of Fyodor’s entire family that Fyodor believe it as well. If the talk continues, the entire family could easily disappear. Only later does Leo come to regret the visit.

At his new post in Voualsk, hundreds of miles from Moscow, Leo hears of another dead child. This child was killed in the same way as Fyodor’s son. The head of the local militia is anxious to close the case in the best way for his career, and blames it on a local teen who is known to be mentally impaired. The similarities stay with Leo and when he and his wife, Raisa, find another child, killed in the same way, Leo realizes that the State he serves is set up perfectly to allow a murderer to operate with immunity. Investigating will certainly put his life at risk, as well as the lives of his wife and parents.

CHILD 44 is as much the story of a serial murder investigation as it is the story of Leo and his gradual awakening to the severe limitations of the State he’s served so enthusiastically. No one could despise a political system so thoroughly if he had not first loved and believed in it so completely. There are several subplots stranded through this amazing novel, and all are presented with depth and complexity. Leo’s personal journey is just as important and fascinating as the serial murder plot. For those who wonder, the murders are based on a real case; details provided in the Further Reading section at the end.

I’ve never read a novel quite like this one, presented from the point of view of a true believer inside the Stalinist State. It’s a frightening and oppressive place to live, even if you’re one of the ‘lucky’ ones. This is not a light and easy novel to read, but the rewards are myriad. It’s hard to believe that this is a first novel. It’s original, thrilling, and utterly engrossing from the first page to the last. I’m anxious to see what this author does next.

Rating: 9
April 2008
ISBN# 978-0-446-40238-5


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