Child 44 has garnered quite a few awards, including the 2008 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for Best Thriller of the year by the Crime Writer’s Association, the 2009 Waverton Good Read Award, the 2009 British Galaxy Prize for first novels, and it was long-listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize.
On the surface the story is about a serial killer operating during the time of Stalinist Russia, and in fact, is based on a real person, Andrei Chikatilo, known as the Butcher of Rostov. Chikatilo, who was eventually convicted of the murders of 52 women and children between 1978 and 1990, had a background similar to that of the serial killer in the book. The author takes the facts and recasts them to occur during the Stalin Era.
But the book is not really about the serial killer, nor his crimes. They just set the stage for the psychological exploration of the functionaries who carried out the directives of the Stalinist regime. In all of the secret services among the major players during the Cold War, there were both idealists and thugs. Each was obliged, to some extent, to adopt some of the characteristics of the other, even while holding the other in contempt. Smith shows this quite effectively with his two main characters serving in the MGB, or Soviet State Security force: thirty-year-old Officer Leo Demidov and his thirty-five year old second in command, Vasili Ilyich Nikitin.
Leo, the idealist, repeats a number of Stalinist bromides to himself throughout the day to temper his response to new situations. The fundamental principle of the MGB – the presumption of guilt – was reinforced by the axiom “Better to let ten innocent men suffer than one spy escape.” As Leo reasoned:
“Although his own employment in the State Security force was frequently unpleasant he understood its necessity, the necessity of guarding their revolution from enemies both foreign and domestic, from those who sought to undermine it and those determined to see it fail. To this end Leo would lay down his life. To this end he’d lay down the lives of others.”
And yet, after watching a clearly innocent veterinarian be tortured and then hearing of his execution, and after seeing his agency’s refusal to admit to the existence of a serial killer, Leo begins to question his faith.
In the Stalinist Era, one of the tenets of the Communist ideal was that there was no murder, theft or rape. These non-comradely like behaviors supposedly only happened in less advanced capitalist systems. To imply otherwise was to question the party ideology, and to be suspected as a Western spy. Thus, similar to the response to the historical murders by Chikatilo, the attention of the police in the book is restricted to mentally ill citizens, homosexuals, known pedophiles and sex offenders. These people, “clearly sick” according to the State, and therefore no real reflection on the veracity of the Communist ideal, were acceptable targets for prosecution and execution for crimes. And in the book as in real life, a number of these suspects actually confessed to the murders, albeit only after prolonged and often brutal interrogation and torture. This willful ideological blindness allowed the real killer to continue his activities, as long as he presented himself as a “normal” member of society.
As the deaths pile up, both of the murder victims and of innocent persons made to take the blame, Leo experiences a crisis of conscience. He claims he is sick and stays home; this alone is enough to generate an investigation of him, which culminates in the accusation that his wife Raisa is a traitor. The agent assigned to investigate her? Her husband – Leo himself! This is meant to be a test of Leo’s loyalty to the system. But Leo is as much an idealist in love as he is in politics; although he carries out an investigation of Raisa, he cannot denounce this woman that he chose for his wife. He is condemned to internal exile.
Vasili takes great pleasure in overseeing the expulsion of Leo and Raisa to the town of Voualsk. There, Leo is determined to continue the investigation into the murdered children; it is the only way he can redeem his past sins in his own eyes. He enlists the aid of the local head of the militia, General Nesterov, and together they risk everything to find the killer and bring a halt to his crimes. Leo also must deal with the shambles of his marriage, yet another casualty of the system of paranoia and distrust in Soviet Russia.
Evaluation: This is a very interesting approach to a crime thriller. The investigators must prove a crime even exists first, and then they must worry more about protecting their own lives and those of their families than apprehending the killer.
When the Soviet Union was still in existence, I was majoring in Soviet politics, and had opportunities to travel to the USSR and talk with quite a few Soviet citizens. I remember clearly how difficult it was to know what was real and what was a party line; what was a confidence (the cynicism, for example) and what was a test; and whether the people we met were truly good, truly bad, or just truly good actors with no real clues given whatsoever. Thus the operatives in this book sounded very real to me. I also thought the portrayal of atmosphere prevalent when Stalin was alive – of fear, paranoia, and solidarity among the non-connected – was very well done. I do not agree with the reviews that label Vasili as a cardboard bad guy; I thought the author did a good job in showing what was driving Vasili to be what he was. And I loved the character of Leo’s wife, Raisa: she was determined, strong, and courageous.
There’s a good portion of suspense in the story, and my interest never lagged. If you like crime thrillers, you will really like this very unusual twist on a genre often mired in sameness.
Published by Hachette, 2008