Tom Rob Smith


"Child 44"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple APR 29, 2008)

"Leo's job was to find evidence confirming a suspect's guilt, not question the guilt itself… He couldn't reverse the proceedings.  A course had been set, a suspect chosen.  It was inevitable that [the suspect] was going to be found guilty and inevitable that he was going to die.  The system didn't allow for deviation or admissions of fallibility.  Apparent efficiency was far more important than the truth."

Whew!  This runaway train-ride of a crime thriller will seize your attention from the first twenty emotionally wrenching pages and keep you hanging on for dear life for the remaining four hundred pages.  Set in Moscow in 1953, when Communism controlled every aspect of daily life, and when government officials were so fully committed to social perfection that they could insist (and even make themselves believe) that "there is no crime," the novel recreates the turmoil in the life of a State Security Force official who begins, reluctantly, to question the "facts" before him. 

Leo Stepanovich Demidov, a young veteran of World War II, now working for the MGB (Internal Security), is drawn into an investigation of the death of a four-year-old boy, supposedly struck and killed by a train.  The child's family believes he was murdered, and a witness has seen him with a stranger just before his death, but Leo, obeying official policy, conveys a subtle warning to the child's father, a fellow MGB officer, not to question the state's findings regarding the child's death.  To do so would reveal doubt, and that could be a fatal mistake. The mysterious witness, Leo discovers upon questioning, has seen "nothing."  His superiors believe that "Careless children, unless they were careless with their tongues, were not State Security concerns," and the case is closed, the  documents which do not agree with their determination of accidental death, altered.

Because each community has its own officials and keeps its own records certifying causes of death, Leo can only regard the death of this child as a single instance of a mysterious death, but when he is relocated to a more remote area and discovers that there has been a similar death there, he begins surreptitiously to investigate.  Always, he must hide his reasons for asking for information.  "Crime does not exist," he reminds himself, and he cannot afford to be labeled a doubter—he has a wife and parents to protect.  Soon he has created a map showing literally dozens of similar crimes along the railway line, suggesting a serial killer who commutes between towns and villages, finding child victims and disposing of them in the most gruesome ways imaginable.

As Leo is working on this case, he must also deal with internal politics within the security service, including his own demotion, relocation, and loss of reputation.   A fellow MGB officer, who has become his enemy, will stop at nothing to ingratiate himself with his superiors and bring down Leo.  At the same time, however, Leo himself is still a party man—"Leo was not naïve enough to believe that he could change the system"--and though he believes that there is a serial killer of children on the loose, he must play by the book in his other investigations, including the interrogation, beating, and eventual execution of two men he knows to be innocent victims of the system.  Torture, including the injection of camphor oil to create horrendous seizures, the use of informants, constant spying on each other, the manipulation of records, and every possible use of terror are employed by the state, because the MGB believes that "Terror protects the Revolution."

Author Tom Rob Smith's novel is filled with carefully drawn and vivid characters, all of whom convey their complex personalities within the structure of their communist society.  Though Smith is British, his creation of Moscow life feels realistic, and his inclusion of maxims which could be part of a communist manifesto adds to the sense of realism—and horror.  The MGB officers here do not act like western policemen who just happen to be detailed to Moscow.  They act, and justify their actions, in terms of their own commitments to a successful Revolution. The peripheral characters seem to accept their lives, in general, even when they are miserably poor and fearful—justice as we know it simply does not exist for them.  Serial killers may be serial killers, world-wide, but the investigation of this killer is uniquely dependent upon its setting in a 1953 Communist society and the political—and emotional—environment in which the killer operates.

Tom Rob Smith is so accomplished in creating a vibrant thriller filled with believable characters within an unusual setting that it is almost impossible to realize that he is a debut novelist.  Comparisons with Martin Cruz Smith (one of my favorite mystery writers) are inevitable, and this novel is at least as good as the best of Cruz Smith.  In some ways—notably his ability to recreate the emotional milieu of the communist society—he may be even more successful.  This novel, though often grim, grisly, and painful to read is a narrative triumph, deserving of every plaudit it gets!  (Note:  It is currently being developed for film by director Ridley Scott, with the screenplay being adapted by Richard Price.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 401 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Child 44 at Hachette Books

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"Child 44"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky MAY 13, 2008)

Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 plunges the reader into the unspeakable horrors of life in the Soviet Union--a repressive dictatorship that spewed out propaganda built on lies and delusions, and rewarded both conformity and the betrayal of one's friends and family. The harrowing opening chapter takes place in 1933. Ukrainian villagers are facing famine as a result of Stalin'sfailed agricultural policies. The sick and starving inhabitants are reduced to eating insects in order to survive for one more day. A dying woman releases her beloved cat, praying that it escapes before it is hunted down for food. A ten-year-old boy named Pavel is elated when he spots the animal. He decides to capture it and bring it home to his mother, Oksana, but his plans go terribly awry.

Twenty years pass and the country is firmly in the grip of Stalinism. The protagonist, thirty-year-old Leo Stepanovich Demidov, is a member of the MGB, the State Security Force. He is a good-looking former military hero whose photograph was prominently featured on the front page of Pravda as a symbol of Russia's victory over the Germans. He is convinced that his job, which includes apprehending individuals suspected of espionage, springs from "the necessity of guarding their revolution from enemies both foreign and domestic...." The Soviet Union has become a place where any remark critical of government policy is punishable by arrest or even execution. Friends and neighbors routinely turn against one another; loyalty has become a rare commodity.

Leo's latest task is to look into the death of a four-year-old boy named Arkady, whose naked corpse was found on a railway line, his mouth stuffed with what appears to be dirt. The government has decided that this "was a tragic accident with no question of blame." Leo has been assigned this case because the boy's grieving father, Fyodor Andreev, one of Leo's subordinates, insists that his son was murdered. Leo tries to convince Fyodor to stop spreading wild rumors about child killers. Such unfounded speculation could undermine faith in Stalin's "perfect" society where crime no longer officially exists. Next, Leo, who is hopped up on amphetamines (prescribed by MGB doctors to keep him focused), pursues Anatoly Brodsky, a veterinarian suspected of being a traitor. Even though there is little hard evidence against Brodsky, Leo ruthlessly hunts him down, believing that it is "better to let ten innocent men suffer than one spy escape."

Child 44 is a riveting portrayal of a ruthless and repressive regime--Orwell's 1984 brought to life. Leo has sold his soul to the devil, and his wife, Raisa, a refugee with a tragic past, despises him for it. Leo's archenemy is his second in command, the selfish and vicious Vasili Ilyich Nikitin, who would like nothing better than to catch him in a fatal error and take his place in the MGB hierarchy. Leo, who has been brainwashed to believe that "the survival of their political system justified anything," undergoes a gradual transformation. As a result of the horrors he has witnessed, his own immoral actions, and his wife's contempt for him, Leo begins to feel remorse for being "a player in a grotesque farce" and for blindly adhering to the commands of an insane political system. When Raisa is suspected of being a spy, Leo must make a choice. Should he denounce her and thereby save himself and his parents, or behave honorably in an attempt to regain his self-respect?

Smith's prose is masterful. His descriptive writing perfectly captures the dismal conditions that Stalin's catastrophic economic and social programs produced. He depicts Lubyanka, the MGB headquarters where those suspected of espionage and counterrevolutionary activity are confined, as a chilling edifice of hopelessness. The author states that "there was something about the building itself which made people uneasy, as though fear had been factored into the design....It was an assembly line of guilt." Most of the men and women who enter Lubyanka are tortured and made to sign false "confessions." Subsequently, they are shipped off to the Gulag or executed. Even children are not immune from punishment. Raisa's secondary school students are so afraid of authority that "discipline was never a problem.... Youth provided no protection. The age at which a child could be shot for their crimes, or their father's crimes, was twelve." Smith manages to infuse even such an innocuous activity as slumber with a feeling of terror. "It was four in the morning, arresting hour--the best time to seize a person, to grab them from their sleep. They were vulnerable, disoriented." What kind of human being takes such sadistic pleasure in exploiting the helplessness of ordinary citizens?

This is a wrenching and multifaceted work of historical fiction. It is also a powerful character study; an indictment of a paranoid dictator who destroyed millions while promising to create an ideal social order; a gripping tale of suspense in which Leo tracks a serial killer who has slain and mutilated dozens of children; and a touching story of a broken man's attempt to rediscover his conscience and redeem himself. In spite of an overly complicated plot and a conclusion that may be a bit too pat considering what has gone before, Child 44 succeeds as a searing account of one of the most appalling eras in the annals of totalitarianism. It is also a tale of courage and self-sacrifice, of the willingness of a few to defy the odds and seek justice for those without a voice.

Warning for the faint of heart: Child 44 is not for the squeamish, as it contains many disturbing scenes of graphic violence.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 401 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Child 44 at Hachette Books



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About the Author:

Tom Rob SmithTom Rob Smith was born in 1979 to a Swedish mother and an English father and was brought up in London. He graduated from Cambridge in 2001 and spent a year in Italy on a creative writing scholarship. Tom has worked as a screenwriter for the past five years.

Child 44 was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

He lives in London.

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