Imagine living in a place where even suggesting there has been a crime is a crime. A crime against the state punishable by, at best, being sent away for a life of hard labour in a deserted frozen wilderness, and at worst, execution without a fair trial. Where your neighbours can turn on you and name you as a traitor and the police can search your home for any reason at any moment. A life where no one, not even your own family, can be trusted.
No, this isn’t modern day America, but 1950’s Stalinist Russia. It is the setting for the new crime thriller, Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith.
Security Ministry Officer Leo Demidov is a determined, charming anti-hero of sorts. A good man whose patriotism has led him to commit heinous acts against his fellow citizens “for the greater good” or so he tells himself. Lies, spying on friends and family, manufacturing evidence, even torture and murder are all acceptable as long as they help ensure the survival and security of Stalin’s “workers’ paradise”.
On the surface Leo is an idealistic war hero with a deeply held belief in the superiority of his country and the communist way of life. As he realises he is nothing more than an instrument of a fundamentally flawed, deadly, and unstoppable totalitarian regime, a crisis of conscience ensues. Slowly his beliefs decay and he loses the strong moral conviction that the innocent must sometimes be punished so no enemy of the state will escape.
When his wife, Raisa, is a victim of the system for which he was a most diligent drone, his life begins to unravel. When he refuses to denounce her as a traitor, he is demoted and humiliated. Even his parents are punished for his crime. He and Raisa are sent away from Moscow to the wastelands of the newly industrialised city of Voualsk.
It is in Voualsk that Leo discovers a true criminal, but how does a disgraced and politically persecuted man prove there is a serial killer on the loose, killing children across Russia? Leo and Raisa must work outside the law to find a killer in a political culture that doesn’t even admit they exist, and already wants him dead.
Child 44, Smith’s début novel, is a stunning success. Based heavily on the life and crimes of Andrei Chikatilo, the Butcher of Rostov, this is a tale that has everything: plot twists, political intrigue, unimaginable violence, and even cannibalism. Smith very expertly weaves a completely believable tale that hints broadly at the true horrors under the surface, only occasionally exposing you to them directly.
The violence is more implied than stated. When it is realised, the violence is uncompromising and unapologetic, but never excessive. One of Smith’s talents lies with his ability to be absolute, honest, and raw. He is never grandiose, overwrought, or declamatory. Smith’s ability ensures that Child 44 maintains a feeling of utter believability throughout. This is undoubtedly one reason why Ridley Scott has already bought the film rights, and is working on adapting this intrigue-filled novel for the big screen.
In Child 44 Smith paints a bleak, frank picture of life in communist Russia. So real, so frighteningly vivid are the images of this time and place it would be easy for you to believe that Smith is himself a survivor of that era. In truth, this 28-year-old Englishman is probably only just old enough to remember what the cold war was like at full chill. That doesn’t stop him from writing a complex and deeply layered novel that is startling and chilling in equal measure.
Unlike many crime novels Child 44 has a flavour of true literature about it, penetrating and richly textured, with none of the glossed over plot holes or depthless superfluous characters that other such novels in this genre can suffer from. Nor does it weigh itself down with overdone or obvious political commentary. Smith’s writing is always austere and elegant – the literary equivalent of simple, clean lines and great open spaces.
Child 44 is stark in more ways than one. Every word seems perfectly placed, meticulously considered for it’s brevity and weight, and yet you never feel overawed or confounded. Each thought, motion, action, and phrase is chosen as would be an ornament in a minimalist’s living room.
This novel is the first of three (according to Smith), the second of which he is currently working on. Let’s hope he finishes it soon, for he surely has a winner on his hands. Child 44 was released in the UK and Europe in March, and will be released in the US on April 29th.Powered by Sidelines