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Child 44 ()

It is entirely fitting that this book is receiving critical plaudits, big sales, and book award nominations just at the time we're celebrating the life of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, because it is a welcome reminder of just how evil was the system he fought against. Indeed, the best aspect of the book is its evocation of the stifling and paranoid quality of existence under a totalitarian regime.

Those who have read Robert Cullen's Citizen X: Killer Department, or are otherwise familiar with the case of Andrei Chikatilo, will recognize the set-up for the novel. In that real-life case, Detective Viktor Burakov waged an often lonely and always officially-handicapped investigation to find the serial killer who stalked the USSR in the '80s, killing over 50 boys and girls. Mr. Smith moves the action back to the early 50s and uses an MGB officer (State Security) as the investigator. When Leo Stepanovich Demidov is first sent to quiet a colleague who has been claiming that his son was murdered he is skeptical. After all, the official report says the boy was killed by a train and Demidov is a loyal servant of the state. But other events and follow-up on this initial incident gradually convince him that there is a monster on the loose, one made all the more dangerous because no one will admit his existence.

This is the tension at the heart of the story: the utopian fiction holds that in the new society that the Communist Party has created "there is no crime;" but the reality is that if you in any way become suspect as regards your adherence to that fiction you are presumed to be guilty and torture, imprisonment, internal exile, and death follow. And everyone around you is a potential informant, either because they can benefit from your destruction or to try and prevent their own annhiilation when they're caught and questioned. So Leo knows that simply to suggest that there has been a string of murders is to be disloyal and to risk everything he has, a promising career, a beautiful wife, the perks of power (including a nice apartment for his parents and a cushy job for his father), and all of their lives. They all realize this too and you can never be sure that friends and family won't sell you out to save their own skin. Not only do these constant threats infuse the story with a feeling of dread, but they warp every human relationship, such that it is only in the course of his investigation that Leo discovers that his wife has never loved him but married him out of fear of reprisal.

It would be presumptuous to say that Mr. Smith accurately recreates the Soviet Union of the 50s and the claustrophobic terror that permeated it, but he's at least created a convincing and compelling version of what such a state must be like. That is a worthy accomplishment. As Leo and those who help him--including his wife, with whom he begins to forge a genuine relationship--are hunted by authorities even as they hunt the killer the book achieves a breakneck speed that is also impressive. The puzzle of who's doing the killings and from whence his pathologies derive is also adroitly handled. There's just one thing that bugs me about the story and I'll try to explain it without giving the plot away, but you may not wish to read further until you've finished the book.

As seems to be the case in nearly every British detective series on TV, the detective here ends up not just doing the investigating but having personal ties to the crimes and connections to the criminal. At best this plot device tends to pile up coincidences in implausible ways, at worst it strains credulity. Mr. Smith strained mine to the breaking point. I think you'll see what I mean when you read it yourself.

And, have no doubt, I do highly recommend reading the book. Too much of it is very good and the reminder of what we were fighting against in the Cold War is too valuable to be put off by a flaw, even a significant one.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Tom Smith Links:

    -Tom Rob Smith (Wikipedia)
    -BOOK SITE: Child 44 (Simon & Schuster)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Tom Rob Smith (
    -EXCERPT: from Child 44
    -ESSAY: Crime thriller 'Child 44' makes Man Booker Prize list: Does Tom Rob Smith's novel being a contender signal a thaw in the literary genre wars? (Sarah Weinman, August 1, 2008, Los Angeles Times)
    -ESSAY: Booker: the novel that made thrillers respectable (Laura Barton, July 31, 2008, Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW: with Tom Rob Smith (Ali Karim, Shots)
    -INTERVIEW: Cold case: Tracking a serial killer in Stalinist Russia (INTERVIEW BY JAY MACDONALD , BookPage)
    -INTERVIEW: Tom talks about impact of death (ANDREW WILLIAMS - Tuesday, February 26, 2008, Metro uk)
    -INTERVIEW: From soaps to Soviet murder mystery (Lucy Durnin, March 25, 2008, Pink News)
    -AWARD: Winner: Tom Rob Smith with Child 44 (The CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger 2008)
    -Tom Rob Smith (Man Booker Prize)
    -ARCHIVES: Tom Rob Smith (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (Reviews of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (Toby Clements, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (Angus Macqueen, Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (Janet Maslin, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (Barry Forshaw, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (A.L. Harper, BlogCritics)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (Karen Chisolm, EuroCrime)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (Andrew Nagorski, Newsweek)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (Fiona Atherton, The Scotsman)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (Thom Geier, Entertainment weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (Sherryl Connelly, NY Daily News)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (Michael Noble, Pop Matters)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (Dick Adler, Chicago Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (Dan Kois, News & Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Child 44 (Regis, Behe, Pittsburgh Tribune)

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