I am not qualified to properly review crime fiction novels as I hardly read them. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I read about a gumshoe tracking a murderer. The James Patterson-phase missed me, and I’m grateful for it. However, my good friend Dave has been hounding me about Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 for over a year now, and I picked it up again last week after a couple of false starts.
This was a fascinating story of a man in search of truth and of redemption from his dark past. Child 44 follows Leo Demidov, a disgraced agent of Stalin’s Soviet State police, in 1953. A boy has been murdered, but the State covers it up as an accident. Soon Leo discovers that children are being ritualistically murdered all over Russia, and he and his wife Raisa try to close in on the killer while on the run from his former subordinate in the MGB, Vasili Nikitin.
My favorite aspect of reading this novel was entering into the oppressive world of Stalin’s Soviet Union. The denouncements, the secrecy, the totalitarian police force, and the removal of basic freedoms made this an especially compelling read. It brought back the anti-Soviet sentiment of my youth, and I’m tempted to watch the final fight against Ivan Drago in Rocky IV just to get it out of my system.
The depictions of the serial killings were more graphic than I thought they needed to be. The children were stripped, raped, and had their stomachs removed. One scene that was especially bothersome was the attack on the stamp-collecting Petya. I felt it verged on fetish literature. I understand that the readers must see the blackness of the killer, but this was a chapter that was more descriptive and lingering than required it to be.
When I read that Child 44 is Smith’s first novel, I felt a mixture of admiration and jealousy. Smith created an interesting character in Leo, and I will probably pick up his next novel The Secret Speech to find out more about Leo and Raisa, and to see how things change under Khrushchev’s rule.
This book inspires me to read a book on the Soviet Union rather than to pick up a James Patterson novel. I’m not sure what this says about Child 44, but I think it is a good thing.
(Good companion piece to this novel: The Lives of Others about the Stasi, the East German equivalent of the Soviet State Police. This excellent movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign film in 2007. It’s currently on sale for $7.99 at Amazon.)
Just for fun: