CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith was the first book I read this year. I didn’t quite get round to getting a copy when it first came out, despite it being the first crime novel to have been longlisted for the Booker prize in 2008, and receiving rave reviews. But I finally bought myself a copy from the terrific Harbour Bookshop in Whitstable over the Xmas break. And a very good read it was, too, and not only because of its unusual setting (Stalinist Russia). The story begins with a prologue (although Smith doesn’t call it that) set in the harsh Soviet winter of 1933. Two brothers from a village were all the food ran out some time ago set off to hunt for a domestic cat they have spotted. One of them ends up being hunted instead. The action then switches to Moscow in 1953, and our ‘hero’ Leo Demidov, who is an officer in the MGB, the state security force, is detailed to convince the family of a dead child that his death must be a terrible accident, contrary to the evidence that it was a murder, because there simply is no crime in Soviet Russia. Leo’s conscience pricks him, but he knows that the whole family is at risk of arrest if they persist in their claims that a murder has been committed. He is a fundamentally good man, but he is part of a fundamentally evil system.
This is 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 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. Leo’s nemesis, Vasili, is a perfect example. His admiration for Leo (possibly verging on a necessarily suppressed homosexual desire, punishable by death in Stalin’s Russia) turns to vicious hatred.
Thanks to Vasili’s betrayal, Leo is exiled with his wife, Raisa, to a bleak town in the Urals. Here, Leo learns not only that his wife does not love him, but she only married him out of fear and now despises him. With everything now out in the open, Leo must somehow live with this new knowledge. Meanwhile, he stumbles across another dead child, a murder and mutilation similar to the one he covered up in Moscow. Leo discovers that children are being killed and mutilated across the country, but because they are never reported as crimes the perpetrator can never be caught. Working outside the law, Leo is determined to track down the murderer and bring the killings to a halt.
The plain simplicity of Smith's prose drives the narrative relentlessly forward. As Leo pursues the killer, pursued himself by Vasili, the novel works brilliantly 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. Reader, I loved it.