Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Book Review: "Child 44" by Tom Rob Smith

As the first installment in a trilogy, Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 was an intriguing historical thriller that I couldn't stop reading. A friend first mentioned the book to me as a passing recommendation, and then I saw the preview for the film based on the book starring Tom Hardy. In true fan girl fashion, and what has become my preferred way to view films based on books, I sought out a copy of Child 44.

Initially, I didn't know what I had gotten myself into as the book started out with a scene that seemed disjointed from the main narrative. The book starts with a scene following two brothers as they try to trap and kill a stray cat in the woods so they can bring it home to their mother and eat it. They are starving, it's the middle of WWII, and the people of Russia have resorted to things worse than eating rats to survive the unrelenting hunger.

Then, the narrative shifts and we are vaulted twenty years into the future. The third person omniscient point of view allows the exploration of many of the character's thoughts, but the narrative most closely follows a high ranking M.G.B. officer by the name of Leo Demidov, whose perspective is shaped by the brain washed blur of Stalinism. As a member of the secret police, Leo fears his own colleagues and upward mobility as much as the general public fears him. To the reader, and to the general public of Stalinist Russia, Leo is a symbol of all that is wrong with the Soviet Union. I began to question why I was following this man and his blind belief for such a flawed ideology.

But then Leo is faced with a case that challenges everything he knows to be true. All of the pillars of brain washing begin to crumble when Leo arrests a man accused of being an anti-soviet spy, despite the fact that Leo knows the man to be innocent. Suddenly, things Leo has done have risen up in his subconscious and begin tearing at him from the inside. One recent incident weighing on his mind involved him neatly investigating and covering up a case of a child's death by the railroad tracks. The death is reported as accidental, evidence is misplaced, eye witnesses retract their statements for fear of their lives, but Leo learns that this death was not an accident, it was murder. As Leo's internal crisis becomes evident to his colleagues, his job, relationships, and ideology all begin to unravel.

I don't want to give away this compelling plot, but I do want to say that Leo begins to awaken to what he has become an accomplice to as he digs deeper into trying to find out who is murdering these children. The entire state is built upon the premise that murder isn't possible, that's why traitors and spies are constantly being tortured into confession and executed or sent to the Russian gulags. A serial murderer undermines the integrity of their system of government, and Leo is expressing anti-Soviet behavior by even questioning the case of the murdered children.

In Leo's pursuit for truth, he is challenged by being forced into the position to denounce his own wife as a spy. When he refuses, he is demoted, and the couple are carted off from Moscow to an outlying industrial town where their relationship is laid bare and Raisa admits that she only married her husband out of fear. What Smith is able to coax out of these characters is a relationship based on mutual misery, lies, and the will to survive, but from its destruction - something new begins to form. With the truth now out in the open, and Leo's mind set only on solving the murders of these children, his wife becomes his partner in the investigation.

Raisa and Leo's fates are tied to one another now, and so she follows him on his first honorable pursuit in his life - which also happens to be against the Soviet mission he once lived as a code. Leo is now trying to decipher the code of a mass murderer with a very specific ritual; luring children from train tracks, stripping them, tying them up, filling their mouths with chewed bark and then cutting out their stomachs.

The investigation is halted in every horrible way possible as each town has invented their own story to explain the murder away. In one town all of the homosexuals are rounded up and punished, because even without the forensic evidence to prove it, the murder is said to be sexual in nature because the boy found was naked. And because this is Stalinist Russia, these towns don't communicate with each other, they are cut off from any information in order to control the people. No established link between these murders all along the Trans-Siberian railroad has been made, because it simply can't exist.

This is a gripping thriller, and the historical background of the Soviet Union in the 1950s feels like a history lesson in the best way possible; the culture informs the audience and makes the reader feel as helpless as these characters. How is real justice sought when an entire system of governance is built around the impossibility of such an event? The cover-ups, the lies, the propaganda - it's all there to bring this time and place to life.

I am impressed that with the historical elements curbing so much of the story that we were still able to get the character development that we did. Leo and Raisa's relationship was once built on the foundation of fear and mistrust, but it evolves into something neither of them recognize or even believed was possible.

To find out more about the film, click here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1014763/


  1. I've had this book in my nightstand drawer for 5 or 6 years and still haven't opened it! I'm always putting aside the physical books I own for waitlisted library books or the convenience of the e-reader. I should at least take it out so it can glare at me, daring me to read it.

    Great review. Now I remember why I grabbed it in the first place!

    1. Yeah, I was really impressed with the book and the character development with so much going on with the historical Soviet craziness happening all around. I want to read the next two in the trilogy...eventually.

  2. I read this book last year and really enjoyed it both for the thrilling storyline and the historical elements of Stalinist Russia. Had no idea there were more books in the series. If Tom Hardy is in the movie that means I have to see it!

    1. The Tom Hardy aspect was my main incentive. Plus, I really loved the complexity of the character of Leo. I just ordered the second book on Audible because I want to know what happens next with his approval to open a Department for Murder Investigations. Compelling stuff.

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