Monday, August 04, 2008
monday book review: child 44, by tom rob smith
How do you stop a serial killer operating in a State where one of the fundamental pillars is that crime does not exist? Set in Stalin's Soviet Union, Child 44 - part political thriller, part murder mystery, and part horror story - is the gripping exploration of that very question.

Leo Demidov is a high-ranking MGB officer who has dedicated his adult life to rooting out enemies of the State, and in the process is responsible for sending innumerable innocent citizens to the Gulags or marking them for execution. A loyal member of the Party, it never occurs to Leo that these people may be innocent until one particular arrest and subsequent interrogation causes him to call everything he once believed into question.

With this one crack, the foundation of Leo's life as a rich, powerful and respected State Security Officer begins to crumble. No longer certain of his work, his confidence weakens and all past cases become shadowed in doubt, in particular that of little Arkady Andreev, the son of one of Leo's MGB subordinates, whose mangled, lifeless body had been found discarded along the railroad tracks. Despite eyewitness evidence suggesting the boy was brutally murdered, Leo - working in a system that cannot acknowledge the crime's existence because to do so would suggest an imperfect society - labeled the boy's death an accident.

Leo's paradigm shift also makes him vulnerable to an ambitious enemy in the MGB, a man who manages to undermine Leo's credibility so much that he suffers a severe demotion and is forced to abandon a life of relative luxury in Moscow with his beautiful wife for a hovel in the depressed, rural village of Voualsk. It is here that Leo, now a low-ranking member of the militia, discovers that little Arkady's murder may not be an isolated incident, but rather the work of a very prolific serial killer. Conducting their own secret investigation, Leo and his wife soon discover that as many as 44 children may have fallen victim to a man the State refuses to admit exists. No longer willing to safely toe the company line, the Demidovs set out to find the killer and stop him themselves, despite the fact that doing so makes them political dissidents and prime candidates for the Gulags or worse.

Typically not my thing, I usually pass on political thrillers, but Child 44 was one of those titles that I couldn't seem to escape, so I was naturally curious to see if it was deserving of all the hype. And after tearing through all 400+ pages in a matter of days, I'd say yes, indeed it is. While it's true that Smith's simple prose won't exactly blow your mind, the compelling story he weaves makes for one gripping read. Although a beast in size, it can be tackled fairly quickly, and the entire time I was reading I couldn't help but think it would make for one terrific movie. (Turns out I'm not the only one who thought this. Ridley Scott committed to direct the film before the book was even published.) The novel does have its flaws, however. My enjoyment was lessened by a late twist that felt far too neat considering the complexity of the plot that had unfolded up to that point, and as I've already mentioned Smith's simple sentences are nothing to gush over. But hey - they can't all be high art, people.  As far as most literary thrillers go, it's far better than most.

In sum, it may not win any awards, but Child 44 is an incredibly ambitious debut from an author to watch and one terrific read. I highly recommend checking it out.

Child 44
Tom Rob Smith
436 pages, 2008

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Anonymous Chrissy said...

A great Mystery/Thriller I couldn't put down is titled Bear Any Burden by Ellis Goodman.
I really enjoyed his book and I hope he writes more!

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