Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

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Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Dan Hooper
Reviewed by Dan Hooper
Summary: A flawed but engaging detective thriller, which will almost certainly make a great movie.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 482 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Pocket Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1847391599

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Leo is a hero after World War 2 and a successful agent in the MGB; a man unquestioningly loyal to his mother Russia, despite having to do questionable duties, until he discovers a mistake in the system and is powerless to do anything. He makes a vindictive and vicious enemy of the lower-ranking but ambitious officer Vasili, a man whom Leo humiliates. Meanwhile, his wife Raisa is named as a spy and Leo's loyalty is tested. In the aftermath of the scandal, Leo's life is turned upside down and he is demoted and sent into exile in Southern Russia as a lowly militiaman, where he discovers a series of child murders that the state has tried to cover up.

Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 is a tale of one man in a corrupt system and his fight to do the right thing. The protagonist Leo is a communist Jack Bauer, a man who will sacrifice himself for the greater good, a conflicted man with a decent moral sense. Sadly as a direct result of his attempts at doing right, sometimes things have a knock-on negative effect, a fact which does not escape Leo's attention – for example, after the murder of a young boy, Leo tries to organise a manhunt for the killer, but the homosexual population of a town is named and disgraced. The dynamic between Leo and Raisa is interesting as their marriage is revealed as a loveless sham, which neither is brave enough to leave. In a climate where friends and family could disappear without trace or investigation, their marriage is one based on fear and Raisa both loathes her husband and fears his position in the MGB.

Unfortunately, this is where decent characterisation ends. Antagonist Visili is a comically Machiavellian figure of evil menace lacking redeeming features, while the child killer's motivations are crude at best, even though he's based on a genuine serial killer. As Leo's boss in the militia, Nesterov seems to transform himself much too quickly from enemy to an ally of Leo. Other than the ticket office clerk Aleksandr, a young man with a secret, most of the supporting characters are too one dimensional to remember.

Smith's writing style is easy to read with the book having a natural flow to it. A sense of fear and depression is maintained and attention to detail is paid to the setting and era. Despite this Child 44 never truly conjures the sense of being in Soviet Russia; written in the third-person omniscient form, it sometimes reads like a commentary by an outsider, with references to Soviet Russia feeling unnatural thus keeping the reader detached from the setting, something which could have been avoided with the use of better descriptions or a first-person narrative.

A flawed but interesting debut from Smith, Child 44 remains a detective story that grips like a vice and is a real page-turner, thanks to a very readable writing style and an interesting protagonist. Though the book goes a twist too far, with the ending seeming more at home in a Hollywood thriller (it is no surprise that it has already been optioned by Ridley Scott), fans of the detective thriller genre will be satisfied. You might also enjoy A Killing Winter by Tom Callaghan.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you enjoy this type of book you'll probably also like The Blue Zone by Andrew Gross or Fatherland by Robert Harris.

Booklists.jpg Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith is in the Costa Book Awards 2008.

Booklists.jpg Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith is in the Independent Booksellers' Prize 2009.

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Paul Curd said:

While I agree with much of Dan’s critique, I feel I must offer a slightly different view. Rather than never truly conjuring the sense of being in Soviet Russia, I found the sense of time and place one of the outstanding strengths of this novel. Not only does Smith paint a brilliantly evoked picture of the Stalinist Soviet Union, he uses his hero, a fundamentally good man who is part of a fundamentally evil system, to explore in more detail how the State-controlled the lives of ordinary people. It is like Orwell making Winston Smith a member of the Thought Police. Smith (the author) manages to capture the overwhelming sense of day-to-day paranoia in Stalinist Russia and the effects this has on love, friendship and trust, the way it can so easily turn them into hatred and betrayal.

To me, Leo’s nemesis, Vasili, is a perfect example of this. His initial admiration for Leo (possibly verging on a necessarily suppressed homosexual desire, punishable by death in Stalin’s Russia) turns to vicious hatred because of the system. Rather than being a comically Machiavellian figure, I found him a complex character, deftly drawn with subtle hints and nuances. In fact, I thought the whole novel was infused with a subtlety unusual in a straightforward thriller. The relationship between Leo and his reluctant wife, Raisa, is a brilliantly evoked example.

The plain simplicity of Smith's prose drives the narrative relentlessly forward. As Leo pursues the killer, pursued himself by Vasili, the novel works perfectly as a tightly-plotted thriller. But it also works on a different level, with its examination of a totalitarian society and its effect on human relationships, and I for one am not surprised that this book was a contender for both the Booker and Costa prizes.

Liz Goodwill said:

Maybe this is an "old" book, but as its recently been put into film format, it has only just come to my attention. The synopsis is a little baffling, not really designed to encourage the reader, to read what is in effect an exceptionally well-written book. The descriptions of soviet life, from housing to clothes to social standing are exceptional, but not "patronising" in the belief than non-russians wouldn't understand. The plot, based on one of Russia's most infamous murderers, is expertly woven into the lives of the main characters., into peoples conception of Russia in that era. Whilst the first few chapters seem a little "bogged" down, with rhetoric, there is something about this book, that then "grabs" you and leaves you with not wanting to put down until finished!. I thoroughly enjoyed it, gasped, shed a few tears, and as a consequence, bought the follow-up books, and a "stand-alone" novel by the same author.