Review of “Child 44” by Tom Rob Smith

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.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Hachette, 2008

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18 Responses to Review of “Child 44” by Tom Rob Smith

  1. farmlanebooks says:

    I loved this book! I listened to the audio version (which won an audie) and I think that added to the experience. I have heard a few people mention that the audio is better than the text, so perhaps that is why you didn’t love it as much as me. Unfortunately I’ve heard that the sequel isn’t as good. I’ll probably still listen to it at some point though.

  2. Steph says:

    While sick last week, I spent some time browsing through online book retailers (since I couldn’t leave the apartment!) and came across this title. I read the first few pages and was hooked! So now I really want to read it, even though it’s not my normal fare. How would you say this one compares to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? For whatever reason, I feel that’s a natural comparison thriller-wise…

  3. diane says:

    I’ve read several reviews on this book, but I’m not sure I would enjoy this one for some reason?? Thanks for your honest review.

  4. Ti says:

    Many in my book group read this one on the side and liked it quite a bit. It’s seems very intense to me, oppressive perhaps? I’ve not been in the right frame of mind to pick it up.

    This new cover is sort of disturbing too.

  5. Nicole says:

    This sounds intense. Jackie has me curious about the audio since I don’t know that it would be normally up my alley. but I like the complexities that you mentioned.

  6. stacybuckeye says:

    I do like crime thrillers, but don’t think I could read another book set in Russia while I’m making my way through War & Peace. Maybe after though 🙂

  7. Jackie,

    I imagine the audio is very good, especially if it uses accents!

    Steph,

    I can’t imagine anything comparing to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo! :–)

    Ti,

    It wasn’t really oppressive at all. And it didn’t harp on the killings of the children, which I liked; they were really only an “excuse” to discuss the MGB, in my reading of it.

    Stacy,

    I know what you mean! Books set in Russia seem to be so much about Russia as well as whatever else they are about!

  8. Barbara says:

    This sounds like my kind of book. I’m a history nut and although 19th Century American history is my usual passion, I do find Stalinist Russia fascinating as well. To blend the paranoia of that period, the danger in making oneself stand out, with a serial killer would be a perfect match. It’s on my list.

  9. Sandy says:

    I find this time period to be totally fascinating, and you have described it perfectly. It is like the entire country lived in a big cloud of BS…even the ones making the rules probably didn’t know fact from fiction. The audio of this book is excellent, the narrator and his Soviet accent was excellent. But the follow-up book, with the same narrator, was a huge disappointment. I hope Smith can reclaim his mojo.

  10. Margot says:

    I like the idea of trying to solve a conventional crime while in the midst of a political culture that says that kind of crime doesn’t exist. It must have made for very interesting thought processes while reading. I know I’m going to be thinking about this just from reading your review.

  11. bermudaonion says:

    I read this in the early days of my blog and really enjoyed it. I do wonder if the author’s friends call him Tom Rob, though.

  12. Staci says:

    I picked this one up for 50 cents at a library sale. I loved reading your thoughts and hopefully I’ll enjoy it!

  13. Nymeth says:

    I’m very very new to thrillers (as in, I’ve probably only ever read one or two), but I’d like to explore the genre more, and this one intrigues me. I do like an original historical setting. And I love books that are all about the psychology exploration of thr characters.

  14. JoV says:

    I’m glad you like it Jill. Character development, suspense, action, drama, historical setting, it has all the right stuff. I enjoyed this more than The girl with the dragon tattoo trilogy though.

    When I first saw it, the cover puts me off. Blood, about a child, oh dear definitely a no-no. It takes my colleague much persuasion before I pick it up and urge everyone to give it a go.

    Brilliant review, Jill. I’m truly delighted that you love it! 🙂

  15. Julie P. says:

    Sounds very interesting. I haven’t read a lot of crime books/thrillers lately! I think my dad would like this one too.

  16. Jenners says:

    This does sound like a different take on a crime thriller indeed! My head was spinning a little bit thinking about it.

  17. Anna says:

    I’ve had my eye on this book for awhile, and your review sold me. It’s going on my (ever growing) to-read list!

  18. Tara says:

    I just finished this yesterday! I actually liked it quite a lot more than I thought I would. I read this for my bookclub, and while initially I thought it wasn’t a great book for discussion, my mind has definitely changed about that. How fascinating -and quite frankly frightening – to have spent time in soviet russia.

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