Guest post by Aloysa
I grew up in the Soviet Union which should explain why every time I find a book by a Western author about Russia, I get excited like a little kid in the candy store. When I saw Child 44‘s cover and read the short annotation, I got not just excited, I got ecstatic. I found a thriller about a serial killer during Stalin’s era! The most interesting time in Russia and my favorite genre! What could be better? So I read…
The novel opens with a disturbing scene set in the winter of 1933 during the Ukrainian peasant famine. Two brothers are snaring a cat for food (pet lovers beware!). The hunt goes terribly wrong, one brother vanishes, leaving bloody spots in the snow, and the other returns home to their mother with no food and tragic news about his brother’s disappearance.
Fast forward twenty years and we are in Moscow in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death. Leo Demidov (personally, I think Smith should have called him Sergey or Piotr – a name more Russian than Leo), an MGB agent and a hero of the war, has a successful career and a beautiful wife. His only ambition is to serve the State and eliminate enemies. For this greater good he arrests, kills and interrogates. But in the State where people live in constant paranoia, no one is safe and no one is trusted. The day comes when Leo suffers an expulsion because he refuses to denounce his wife Raisa as a spy.
Leo and Raisa are transferred to the small town Voualsk (for those who wonder where the hell it is, I can say it is far, far away from Moscow, in the Ural mountains) where Leo gets involved in the serial killer investigation. In order to investigate the crime, Leo (I really feel like calling him Piotr) has to prove first that a crime was indeed committed. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, in a society that officially is a paradise, it is the crime against the State to suggest that a crime exists.
All of the details in the novel feel creepily real. But how well has Smith researched and understood realities of the Stalinist era? He makes one and very obvious mistake in Child 44 (fans, please, don’t stone me!). When a person was arrested during the Stalin’s regime, death was a whisper away. There were no releases and no expulsions. It did not matter if a person was an MGB agent or a hero of the war. Smith ignores this fact and creates his own vision of the Stalin’s world.
On the surface Child 44 is a story about a serial killer operating in Stalinist Russia. But you need to look a little bit deeper, read between the lines, step back from the obvious and you will see that the book is an attempt (backed by a substantial research) of a psychological exploration of a fearful world where no one can be trusted. The only thing worse than a sadistic and psychotic child killer is a whole country with a pathological and genocidal agenda.
In conclusion, I should say – hats off, ladies and gentlemen, in spite of a few weaknesses, Rob Tom Smith did a great job. He studied, he researched, he worked hard and wrote a great, suspenseful page-turner. The setting of the novel is Russia, the politics are Soviet, the atmosphere is Stalinist. The only disappointment is that the main characters sometimes appear to be more Western than Russian (and this time I am not talking about their names). But it can be just my native Russian view of the book.
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You can visit Aloysa at The Kitchen Sink, a blog about book reviews and lots of other cool stuff.