Hachette, 2008, 439 pages
It is a society that is, officially, a paradise. Superior to the decadent West, Stalin's Soviet Union is a haven for its citizens, providing for all of their needs: education, health care, security. In exchange, all that is required is their hard work, and their loyalty and faith to the Soviet State.
Leo Demidov knows this better than most. A rising, prominent officer in the State Security force, Leo is a former war hero whose only ambition is to serve his country. To defend this workers' paradise - and to guarantee a secure life for his parents and for his wife, Raisa - Leo has spent his career guarding against threats to the State. Ideological crimes - crimes of thought, crimes of disloyalty, crimes against the revolution - are forcefully suppressed, without question.
And then the impossible happens. A different kind of criminal - a murderer - is on the loose, killing at will. At the same time, Leo finds himself demoted and denounced by his enemies, all but sentenced to death. The only way to salvage what remains of his life is to uncover this criminal. But in a society that is officially paradise, it's a crime against the state to suggest that a murderer - much less a serial killer - is in their midst.
To save his life and the lives of his family, Leo must confront the vast resources and reach of the security forces, with only Raisa remaining at his side, to find and stop a criminal that the State won't even admit exists.
Child 44 is two stories: one is a murder mystery about a serial killer who murders children and leaves them disemboweled with their mouths stuffed with dirt. But the murder mystery is overshadowed by the setting, which is the Soviet Union of the early 50s, under Stalin's rule.
Leo Demidov is an officer of the MGB, the predecessor of the KGB. He is a rare thing in the cynical world of Soviet bureaucracy: a true believer who's neither naive nor stupid. He actually believes in Lenin's maxims. He really believes that the Communist Party is working for the good of the Soviet Union, and that the imprisonment, torture, and execution of innocent people — in which he has participated — is an unfortunate but necessary evil. The West hates Russia and her revolution and will do anything to undermine it.
To portray such a character as neither naive nor evil is an impressive feat, and I found Leo to be sympathetic, if a bit thick-headed. Every regime has loyalists like this who become masters of rationalization and compartmentalization. As it turns out, Leo has rationalized and compartmentalized all kinds of things.
The mystery gets underway when a child is found dead on the railroad tracks in Moscow. Leo is told the child was hit by a train, but the parents insist he was murdered. Leo convinces the parents and the community to get behind the State's version: the State says there was no murder, because murder doesn't happen in the USSR. The only crimes are committed by foreign agents trying to undermine the State.
Unfortunately, it turns out that even Leo can't ignore the truth when it's staring him in the face. Pretty soon he is asking awkward questions, which results in his own loyalty being put to the test.
Leo's beautiful wife, Raisa, at first appears to be dutiful and affectionate, and when Leo pretty much throws his career away to defend her, you'd think this would cement the bond between them. Instead, there are secrets and lies beneath their marriage, and even more come out of both their pasts. In the meantime, Leo is finding evidence that there is a serial killer on the loose in Russia, someone who is somehow able to travel all over the country and leaves dead children wherever he goes.
The mystery of who the killer is and how Leo will catch him elicits less tension than Leo and Raisa's struggle to survive and stay out of the gulags. They would seem to have no chance of escape, and indeed, they pretty much resign themselves to dying sooner rather than later and probably unpleasantly.
Life in pre-Glasnost USSR is depicted in all its harsh, murderous madness. The truth counts for nothing and compassion seems to be a value that the State is weeding out of Soviet society with Darwinian efficiency. Everyone is frightened and paranoid — compared to people being sent to torture chambers and gulags for the wrong word, the wrong friend, or the wrong parents, a plain old serial killer seems almost benign. At least that's an evil one might be able to stop.
I enjoyed this book a lot. It's nicely paced and plotted. Leo evolves from an honest thug who's a bit of a rube to someone struggling for integrity in an Orwellian world, and Raisa, who started out as a cipher, becomes someone with agency and as much integrity and bravery as Leo.
That said, Child 44 is not perfect. Tom Rob Smith uses coincidences that would make Dickens blush, and Leo and Raisa pull off some Indiana Jones-level escapes. Leo's awakening conscience seems to coincide with a thawing of hearts all over Russia, as suddenly everyone from prisoners on a train to peasants in a remote village are willing to risk their lives to help a couple of strangers. The ending in particularly severely tested my suspension of disbelief.
Child 44 is the first book in a trilogy, and I'm looking forward to the next one.
Verdict: It makes me feel old to realize there are people reading this who don't actually remember the Soviet Union. Now the USSR can be used as the setting for a dystopian thriller. Although I am not enough of an expert on Russian society or Soviet history to swear that every detail of Child 44 is accurate, I do know that it captures the harshness and paranoia of of Stalin's regime. In that regime we have a good man working for a bad system in what's an exciting, gritty, if not always entirely believable thriller. Characters and plot are twisty and intriguing enough to make up for a few "Oh really now?"s. A good read.