Friday, February 18, 2011

Crime Doesn’t Exist

Some things take a long time catching my eye, or more accurately tickling my interest. Out of the loop, focused elsewhere, head in the sand, sometimes I look up and can only say, “Huh? When did that come out?” Last November a friend passed on a battered old paperback with a terse, “Here…This is pretty good,” and with barely a glance the book wound up forgotten in a stack on an out of the way table. It stayed there until three days ago.

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith was published in April of 2008 and I completely missed the boat, never picked it up to flip through in a bookstore, never read a review, never even heard any talk about the book. I dug out the copy from my friend and sat down to read with scant enthusiasm. That old line comes to mind, ‘judging a book by its cover.’ Child 44 didn’t look interesting.

Couldn’t have been more wrong. Ten pages into the story I suddenly understood the reason behind the six pages of review blurbs inside the front cover praising the book and writer. Child 44 is an example of why reviewers throw out words like ‘compelling,’ ‘page-turner’ and ‘gripping.’

Author Tom Rob Smith has taken a piece of Russian criminal history and created a multi-layered novel of Russia in the final year of the Stalinist era. His story is loosely based on Andrei Chikatilo, a Ukrainian serial killer who murdered 53 women and children between 1978 and 1990. The backdrop of Smith’s novel is the Soviet State, a place where ‘there is no crime,’ where people are so frightened and whipped by the authorities that each day is weighted by fear of arrest and torture for virtually nothing. The novel is in great part built upon the paranoia of that era and the apparatus of the secret police.

The story begins in 1933 with two starving children stalking a cat and themselves being stalked by a starving man. In the next chapter the story jumps to 1953 and we meet the main character, Leo Demidov, a war hero and officer in Stalin’s secret police—seemingly no connection to the children of the previous chapter. Leo is a loyal, efficient and brutal tool of the state, never doubting the guilt of those he is sent to arrest. A child’s murder is called an accident and Leo is sent to close the case with the child’s family. This is a case that haunts the policeman. Soon after, he is told to gather evidence that his own wife is a spy. Faint cracks begin to appear in Leo’s loyalty to Stalinist doctrine and finally he reports that his wife is innocent, is not a spy. An unacceptable conclusion, Leo is demoted and with his wife exiled to a small lumber town in the north.

A child in the town is found murdered and to Leo’s police mind there are things about it that remind him of another child’s death. The chase for a killer is on, but Leo’s every step is dogged by constant obstruction. After all, there is no crime in Mother Russia. The hunt is tense, brutal and without pause. What is it they say about some books? Hard to put down?

The beautifully detailed background of Stalinist Russia is only one aspect of Smith’s creation. All of the characters are drawn in word and action that echo the hope, fear, doubt and frailty common to us all. In two places I stopped reading to make note of especially effective character descriptions. At one point the writer describes Vasili, Leo’s nemesis as having ‘a hero’s face with a henchman’s heart.’ In another chapter he measures the effect of one character’s words upon another this way: ‘The man’s face fluttered as if she’d tossed a stone onto the surface of his expression.’

If like me you are late in coming to this book, if you enjoy suspense and a white knuckle ride, find a copy of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44.


  1. I'll have to add that to my VERY long list of "want to reads!" Glad you found it and took a chance on it!

  2. When I finish what I'm reading now I'll check your recommendation out at the library. Sounds spellbinding.

  3. Always fun and satisfying when a recommended book hits home with someone else. Nice review. Would no doubt please the author.


About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America