Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

May 16, 2015

My girlfriend lent me Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith because my to-read list was dangerously short and, most importantly, full of non-fiction. I’m not a huge fan of thrillers but still it’s a book and I have to read.

Child 44 is a detective story which takes place in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The investigator is a model citizen Leo Demidov, an MGB (KGB predecessor) agent tasked with protecting the state from capitalist danger. The story begins at a point in his career, when Leo starts to doubt the system. His loyalty and slipping trust in the state is tested when he’s ordered to investigate his own wife as a possible spy who is set up by his superior. His inability to find any evidence of her treason and unwillingness to denounce her leads to him being demoted to a militia officer and their relocation to a provincial town of Rostov.

With his life in shambles, Leo encounters a murder case with stark similarities to a case of a dead boy in Moscow, which he was tasked to sweep under the rug. Driven by his idealism and want for truth, Leo puts all his effort in capturing the serial killer. By investigating a capitalist crime, he risks his life and is forced to work against the system he used to enforce. During the investigation he recruits some unexpected help and discovers a completely different side of his country.

The story is based on a real series of murders which happened in SSSR in 1978-1990, i.e. over 25 years later than Child 44. The time shift enabled Smith to explore many aspects of the life in SSSR - the ever present paranoia, the (secret) police operation, homosexuality and many more.

All the facts are well researched and depicted in a way to fit the narrative but sometimes it lags. On one hand it’s good that someone put the effort into getting the details right; not just flashing out a totalitarian regime characterized by few cliches. On the other hand, it takes many pages for all the detours to be factually correct and complete. Personally I had to force myself through the first half of the book. The second half, luckily, picked up the pace a bit. Still, it was almost five hundred pages in a small print.

The book is a first in a series, but I don’t see myself reading the others, unless they’re the last book on the face of the Earth. Child 44 also got a movie adaptation with Tom Hardy as Leo Demidov. It has premiered recently around the world; it’s been banned in Russia. The reviews are mostly negative; the trailer didn’t look too exciting - mostly American actors with poor Russian accents (either learn Russian, or do it in English). At least I can look forward to recognizing locations because the movie was filmed mostly in Prague, Kladno and other Czech cities.