The beginning of CHILD 44, Oxford graduate Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel, is unrelentingly grim. It is a double-time, stiff-legged forced march through the forbidding and unforgiving landscape of Soviet Ukraine in 1933, featuring a description of two brothers who are trying to catch a stray cat. They are, you see, very, very hungry.
"Smith manages to infuse the story with unique twists and turns that will catch even long-time thriller readers by surprise. Exquisitely plotted and wonderfully but fearfully told, CHILD 44 is one of this year’s wonders."
Most of CHILD 44 takes place over the course of a stark four months some two decades after the boys chase that unfortunate cat, in the Stalin-era, post-World War II Soviet Union. The State is god, and its enforcer is the State Security Force (MGB), which rules with an Orwellian terror. Owning the wrong book or saying the wrong thing can earn a one-way ticket to the Gulag for 20 years. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so famously pointed out, if you did nothing, you only received a seven-year sentence.
Leo Demidov is one of the best MGB officers, a war hero and an idealist who has reaped the rewards of his position, not the least of which are his beautiful wife and their relatively comfortable apartment in Moscow. But his world is turned upside down when he is targeted by an underling and abruptly demoted. Shipped with his wife to a grim industrial city in the Russian wilderness, Demidov suffers the ultimate humiliation, serving as the equivalent of a small-town cop in a country where there officially is no crime. He is horrified when he investigates the murder of a young boy in the area that has dark but unmistakable similarities to an earlier slaying that supposedly had been solved and, worse, bears an unsettling resemblance to the death of a child in Moscow that Demidov, with implicit pressure from his superiors, had classified as an accident.
Demidov is sure that a monster prowls throughout Russia, killing youngsters at will, and feels duty-bound to investigate. But how can he investigate a crime that does not exist? The State has decreed itself a paradise, and to declare otherwise is tantamount to treason. Having already lost everything, Demidov does not have much farther to fall, yet he feels he has a duty to stop the evil soul that roams the nation seemingly invisible and at will. To do so, however, he will have to confront not only his past but also the truth about his life, his marriage and his very existence, even as the investigation leads to a surprising and shocking climax.
Tom Rob Smith’s subject matter is the stuff of waking nightmares. While comparisons to GORKY PARK are probably inevitable, such are appropriate only with regard to locale and to time period (and then, only roughly). Smith manages to infuse the story with unique twists and turns that will catch even long-time thriller readers by surprise. Exquisitely plotted and wonderfully but fearfully told, CHILD 44 is one of this year’s wonders.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 7, 2011