In Stalinist Russia in the early 1950’s crime was unthinkable. The State declared it was a worker’s paradise, crime could not exist in such a paradise. To even suggest it was considered treason, and punishable by imprisonment, transportation or death. Under such a cloak, a serial murderer can carry on his mission with very little interference. Such is the premise of Child 44.
But this book is so much more than a crime novel. We learn what living in Communist Russia meant for millions of people. Fit in, don’t be different, don’t be noticed. Some, like the main character, Leo Demidov tell themselves it’s all for the greater good, that lying, spying, and even torture and murder can all be justified if, in the long run, it helps to secure the State.
When a jealous co-worker accuses Leo’s wife of being a spy, Leo tries to follow the party line, he spies on her, he searches her belongings, but he is morally shaken and comes to realize that this is a flawed system, where innocence means nothing, those with power can bring about the downfall of anyone.
Leo stands by his wife and declares her innocent, but even so they are arrested and interrogated. Leo is demoted from being a Security Ministry Officer, he and his wife are transported to a small factory town. Finding evidence of a serial-killer, Leo is forced to work outside the law to try and bring down this child killer all the while not knowing where to turn or in whom to trust.
That Child 44 is the first novel by Tom Rob Smith is hard to believe. Every word, every sentence is sheer perfection. He captures the bleak futility of everyday life, he describes the food, the clothes, the working conditions so clearly, I found myself repeatedly looking up to ensure myself I wasn’t living under such terrible straits. Even his use of the bone-numbing Russian winter to set the atmosphere for the first half of the book is perfection. I will long remember this beautifully written, multi-layered story.