Smith, Tom Rob - 'Child 44'
CHILD 44 is the debut novel for Tom Rob Smith, set in the dying days of Stalin's Soviet dream society and inspired by a real-life serial killer.
Starting in 1933, with villages of people starving to death in a desperate winter, the opening chapter of CHILD 44 deeply underscores the desperation of life in that environment. Moving 20 years later to 1953 in Moscow, a very young child is found dead on the railway tracks. His death is barely investigated, the Security Services have other things on their minds: mostly vicious persecution of ordinary people. Slowly, Security Ministry Officer Leo Demidov is being manoeuvred into the position of State enemy, and ultimately he is sent, along with the wife, Raisa, he refused to hand into the authorities, to the Ural Mountains where other children are found murdered. Murder (and most crime) isn't acknowledged by the Soviet authorities, unless it can be blamed on the insanity or perversity of the perpetrator, so convenient scapegoats are found and the cases quickly closed. Leo knows there's something more going on, and when the local Police General finally is convinced as well, they discover something much more sinister. The problem then really becomes whether Leo and his wife can survive long enough to get to the end of the trail.
CHILD 44 takes a while to get moving - in terms of a pure investigation style of crime novel. The early part of the book is taken up with the events that lead Leo into the position of being "an enemy of the State". Throughout this part of the book the direness of the Soviet experience, the petty corruption and bullying that a martial society allows are brutally explored. The sheer cruelty of a system that seeks to find its own citizenry guilty is glaringly stark.
Patience for this building of scene is rewarded though, as once the book hits the point at which Leo and Raisa end up in the Urals, events begin to pile on top of each other.
There's a lot more to CHILD 44 than the investigation of a shocking series of child murders. What's also at stake is the whole way that fear can control a society, can affect personal relationships, can twist everything.
Obviously there's been considerable research into the background of CHILD 44, but the book doesn't read as a research tome - it reads as a story of fear, manipulation, power struggles, petty jealousy, brutality, cruelty, madness, loss, survival and humanity.
Review reprinted with the kind permission of the author.
Karen Chisholm, Australia