An impressive novel from Tom Rob Smith, Child 44 creates a sense of claustrophobia and fear, evoked from words that don’t appear on the page, rather than the words that are written. What I would find to be flaws in many other pieces of fiction, such as a lack of direct action, minimal dialogue, and characters that cannot be liked, are actually the strengths in this novel.
Set in 1953 Soviet Russia, largely after the death of Stalin, Child 44 is a hybrid of political history and thriller. Based loosely on the Rostov Ripper who was executed for committing 52 murders in the Soviet Union a number of years later, Child 44 offers a grim exploration of a corrupt political system that disguises crimes at any cost, in the belief that there is no such thing as crime in a communist society.
Although the direct action throughout the novel is arguably slow, Tom Rob Smith’s storytelling ability gives this novel its urgency and suspense. The moral compass of each character cannot be deemed as wholly good, keeping the reader second guessing and reading in between the lines. Although this immorality is arguably bred into each individual due to unforgiving nature of Stalin’s rule, each major character – particularly the protagonist- are truly unforgivable.
The narrative is delivered from the viewpoint of MGB Agent Leo Demidov who is exiled by the State after refusing to denounce his wife as a spy. His decision to exhibit faith in wife, rather than the government, is the catalytic event which causes Leo to reassess the immorality and corrupt structure of the State. Having once swept the murder of a child under the rug by formally claiming the young boy had run away, Leo is later confronted by another murdered child, killed in exactly the same way as the young boy years ago. With a noose of thread around the child’s ankle and their organs artistically carved out, Leo is motivated to investigate the disappearances of 44 children that were previously blamed on delinquents and undesirables.
This change in morality and the decision to do the right thing, however, is not a reason to like Leo.
‘In the pursuit of justice he’d unleashed terror. In the pursuit of a killer, on hundred and fifty men would lose their lives.’
Tom Rob Smith delivers a harrowing glimpse into the lives of every-day people and the contempt they were held in by the State. Mistrust and betrayal are never too far from the narrative, even when not explicitly stated. Despite the arc narrative of innocent children being brutally murdered, it was actually too hard to concentrate my reaction of horror on just one narrative event in the book. Was the loss of 44 innocent young lives the most horrific thing, or was it the political system that allowed the serial killer to commit the perfect crime in the name of Communism? Was it the purging of 150 men just because they were homosexual? Perhaps it was the lack of community, or the way prisoners were tortured for not supporting Stalin. Perhaps, the serial killer and his love for internal organs aside, the true horror is the reflection that some of these terrors still exist in parts of the world today.
A grim story that is engaging and challenging, I’d really recommend reading Child 44 or at least watching the film, which is a bloody great adaptation. Readers and viewers alike must be warned, however, that the final chapter weakens what could have been an outstanding book. The ending is packaged too neatly for a plot that was so full of unpredictable turns and urgency, but it is a minor flaw easily forgiven in an unforgettable debut.