Child 44

Posted: November 19, 2013 in Book reviews

And now for something a little different…Book reviews! Partly because a lot of things I read prompt me to want to comment on their strengths and weaknesses, but also because I want to list what I read over the course of a year.

The inaugural review concerns Tim Rob Smith’s debut novel; Child 44. Effectively a police procedural set in Stalinist Russia this was a cracking read, once I got used to the author’s curious decision to dispense with speech marks. I’m really not sure why writers do this, as it’s never improved a piece of work I’ve ever read. One can only assume it’s a pretentious desire to be different (this might form the basis of a future “Things other writers do that annoy me” rant) although at least in this case Smith replaces them with hyphens and italics, so it’s easier to discern speech than in some other books I’ve read.

Set in 1953 the book follows Leo Demidov, an agent with the MGB (Ministry of State Security). Though Leo is ostensibly a decent man, his job with the MGB entails him tracking down traitors, which in the Soviet Union can mean anyone, even his own wife.

Smith does a good job of evoking the fear and paranoia of the time, a curious era where crime is perceived as a western weakness, and isn’t even acknowledged as existing within the USSR, so when a young boy is killed and his father cries murder, Leo is assigned to convince the family to stop clamouring for an investigation, because clearly it was just a terrible accident.

When Leo and his wife, Raisa, fall foul of the MGB and are exiled to a remote industrial town however, Leo uncovers another similar killing, which leads to him to the realisation that there have been a whole host of child murders across the Soviet Union, with the boy in Moscow the titular 44th victim. But how can Leo catch a killer the State refuses to believe even exists?

This is a novel that really gripped me from the get go. The decision to set it in Stalinist Russia is inspired, and Smith’s depiction of the era is almost more horrific than the murders themselves. This is a society living in fear, where crime is ignored and you can be arrested, tortured, exiled or executed just for saying hello to the wrong person. The notion of trying to solve a crime in such an environment is intriguing, although in part this is where the story falls down, because Leo’s investigation is fairly routine, and is far less interesting that his and Raisa’s interactions with Soviet society in general.

For the first three quarters this is a real page turner, but unfortunately Smith can’t keep up the pace. The revelation of the killer’s identity is incredibly contrived, and whilst Leo and Raisa escaping execution the first time they fall foul of the State makes some sense, subsequent escapes from death seem all too convenient. Throw in a limp finale and a happily ever after that jars with the tone of the majority of the book and you have a final quarter that disappoints.

I still highly recommend it, because for most of the story it’s a damn fine read, probably the best book I’ve read in quite some time, and I will be getting the follow up, but if you read it just be prepared to be slightly disappointed by the end.

  1. It sounds really interesting, but I fear the lack of punctuation would annoy me. I’m paid to correct that sort of thing!

  2. […] book in the trilogy of novels featuring Soviet era detective Leo Demidov. I’ve already reviewed Child 44 and The Secret Speech, so while I’ll try to keep spoilers for Agent 6 to a minimum spoilers for […]

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