Hiya bookies. Today’s review is for one of the seminal books of the last 10 years. If you haven’t read Child 44, it’s your loss. I hope you enjoy my review.
CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith.
There is no crime. Not in Stalin’s USSR of 1953. The Soviet society is so perfect, so ideal, that there is no reason for crime and therefore it follows that crime does not exist. Which makes it very hard to catch criminals.
Leo Demidov is an officer of the MGB, the State Security Police, a prestigious job that requires him to hunt down and arrest traitors and spies. And while there might not be crime in the Soviet Union, there are lots and lots of traitors to the Revolution. They can be anyone, anywhere, and treason may be nothing more than a momentary lapse in revolutionary zeal, a thought, a doubt, that betrays independent thought that works against the common good. Protecting the state from such deadly internal enemies is Leo’s job, and Leo is very, very good at his job. Too good, as it turns out.
Two vignettes, seemingly unrelated to the following plot, should not be ignored. A boy disappears in the forest while chasing a cat during the years of collectivization, when millions of Russian citizens were intentionally starved to death. The cat isn’t his pet, it’s to be his dinner. Later, in Moscow, two brothers have a snowball fight that turns ugly.
Like all truly great thrillers, the place and time are as much a character as Leo, or his wife Raisa, or his commander. The paranoia of the times pervades all. A mis-spoken word isn’t necessary to condemn a person; a glance at the wrong moment at the wrong person is plenty to bring a death sentence. Life is lived knowing that no one has rights and at any moment a sinister knock may bring twenty years in the gulag. There is no color here, only gray, bleak and cheerless.
And the criminal that does not exist, the one Leo becomes obsessed with catching, is a serial killer of children. Unless this man is a spy, or perhaps unbalanced or homosexual and therefore outside the norms of Soviet society, unless there is a reason for his actions, then having a criminal in their midst contravenes the rules of the state. In turn, that means the state can be wrong, which is not possible. So it must be subversion.
Child 44 is a riveting story in itself, but it is also a story that teaches while keeping the reader glued to their seat. There is very little dialogue here, and at first it can be annoying. But as the pages turn the reader realizes that in Soviet Russian the spoken word was precious, people never spoke their mind and so speech was innocuous, meaningless. What dialogue there is becomes special, cherished. A neat trick by a new author, from whom one can only expect great things.