The International Writers Magazine: Book Reivew
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
Nick Lewandowski review
Here is a murder mystery set in a society where murder does not officially exist. Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 takes place in the Soviet Union in 1953, beginning in the final weeks of the Stalin era. A child’s mutilated body is found near a set of train tracks. The State
calls it an accident, the child’s family insists it was murder.
Enter Leo Demidov, officer in the Ministry of State Security (MGB) - predecessor to the KGB. His job is not to solve the case but to keep the family quiet. One of the critical underpinnings of Soviet society is that crime does not exist, least of all crime not easily pawned off on the lingering influence of bourgeois self-indulgence.
Ever the loyal State Security man, Leo intimidates the family into silence.
Not long after, a rival within the MGB discredits him. He and his wife are forced into exile at an industrial backwater in the Ural mountains, where Leo has been assigned to the local militia at the lowest rung of the ladder.
Then another child’s mangled body is found near the railroad, just like in Moscow. With very little left to lose, Leo begins an unofficial investigation. It’s soon apparent he has stumbled on a
serial killer – one that is traveling by rail and murdering children all along the lines. And because there’s no such thing as a serial murderer in the Soviet Union – therefore no chance of help from official quarters – Leo resolves to catch the killer himself.
The Soviet attitude toward crime and the complications it causes for both Leo’s investigation and day-to-day life are easily the most engaging elements of Smith’s novel. The pace of the plotting is off (too many hurtling chase sequences for a subject more suited to
gloomy, brooding atmosphere), and Smith shifts point of view with disorienting frequency. In several cases characters appear for single chapters and then are killed; by the second or third time the reader stops caring and begins to skim, waiting for Smith to pull the rug out
from under him. The novel’s “twist” ending is an anti-climax and its epilogue a too-sweet flavor of heartwarming at odds with what has come before it.
Where Smith excels, however, is exploiting the paranoia of the Stalin era to create tension and flesh out his characters. Early on, there is a long, yet understated chase on the Moscow tram system during which one surveillance operation is tailed by another in a kind of Stalinist
nesting doll. Leo’s wife is a Moscow secondary schoolteacher, and at one point she notes how her ability to remember all her students’ names unnerves them (“if I can remember your name I can denounce you”). When grading quizzes dealing with Soviet ideology, she is
instructed to mark down the names of the children who answer incorrectly. These passages are glimmers of excellence on par with Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park and Robert Harris’ Fatherland.
Therefore, in spite of its obvious flaws, Child 44 deserves credit for its unique setting. Worth a read by mystery lovers looking for a change of time and place, provided they can get past the often workman-like prose.
© Nick Lewandowski December 2010
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