Anyone who has graced the AQA exam board for history even by the end of year 12 probably knows their fair share about Stalin and the totalitarian rule he held over the USSR (and I shall refer to it as totalitarian to simplify things, given that this review falls into the category of English rather history). And, while it is anything but boring (particularly in comparison with the British or *shudder* Irish courses), it can become dry in places and the textbook somewhat lacking. You’re fed statistics and you can’t really process them, for the collateral damage of the Stalinist regime is mind-boggling, and just end up being words on shiny paper.
Therefore, what attracted me to Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith was my interest in the period as a history student. Set towards the end of Stalin’s reign over the USSR, the book, though fictional, portrays a grim and (if you’ve studied it) entirely believable portrait of the Soviet Union and the role of the individual within it. Well researched and complete with bibliography, what I found most interesting about Smith’s choice of backdrop, apart from its accuracy, was the dynamic it placed on what is otherwise described as a thriller or murder mystery. By placing the hunt for a serial killer in Stalinist Russia, the search for the murderer was made a hundred times more difficult – not only have you got the killer evading chapter, but the State resenting interference, refusing to believe that crime exists and obstructing the protagonist’s search – labelled a dissident for his investigation – by any means possible, including death.
The protagonist, Leo, a high-ranking MGB officer, begins to lose his idealistic beliefs in the infallibility of the State and starts to questions his actions as a member of the secret police. When he refuses to denounce his wife, he is sentenced to demotion and exile in a far-off corner of Russia (which, given the more popular alternatives – execution or the Gulag – isn’t a bad lot). After finding out everything he worked for, including the love of his wife, is a sham, a broken Leo is left demoralised and lost, until it comes to life that a serial killer is at large – unnoticed in the mismanaged and corrupt State bureaucracy. Leo begins to investigate the child killer, in the hope he can redeem himself, yet his uncertain status as an enemy of the State means that the more he questions, the less likely the Communist Party will be to let him survive.
For myself, I chose the book because I thought it would place Russian history into perspective for me, as a predominantly literature-orientated person. I felt the novel delivered on this front – not only does it include a grimly blunt depiction of the abominable conditions suffered by Stalinist citizens, but also highly detailed descriptions of the process of terror used by the secret police at the time to which Leo, as an officer, plays eye-witness. The book exemplifies the national psyche of fear and mistrust, while also touching on unsavoury parts of the regime unknown to me beforehand; the conditions of orphanages and mental hospitals, the treatment of prisoners of war, the actions of the Red Army. A richly detailed book, Tom Rob Smith captures Soviet Russia a little too perfectly within Child 44’s pages.
The way he incorporates his protagonist into this world is also interesting. Leo Demidov is an MGB officer, killing and arresting innocent people on little evidence and forced confessions, so as a reader you really shouldn’t sympathise with him. Yet Tom Rob Smith manages to humanise him – first through his honest belief in the socialist State and its doctrines, and secondly by stripping him bare of all his faith and leaving him a broken man, finally comprehending the truth of his actions and their utter lack of justification. It is at this point, when Leo is at his lowest, that you realise he is a good man, making his experience in such an awful, uncompromising situation all the more poignant. By making a ‘real’, flawed and therefore believable protagonist, Smith really brings home the facts of Soviet life, making you feel sympathy and a sense of futility that cannot be conveyed in a textbook. And as Leo rebuilds his life, you find yourself not only fighting for him but against the system that made him. Ironically, this fiction makes all the A-level facts a lot more real.
Another reason why this book was such a great read is that, regardless of its setting, it is a damn good thriller. A fugitive detective chasing a killer while simultaneously being chased himself by the State, all trying to evade capture and exposure; it makes for a fast-paced, engrossing read, including escapes from trains transporting prisoners to the Gulag, a chase through a frozen river, and intrigue as Leo and his wife try to decide who to trust (often getting it wrong). And, as Leo’s actions have such wide repercussions in a police state – affecting those around him and placing them in danger as well as himself, and giving people every incentive to go against him – the stakes in Child 44 are raised much higher than in a normal thriller. It’s part spy novel, part murder mystery, part thriller and part history. The combination gels really well, and makes for a slick read that moves so fast that you want to keep up with it – and the villains are really good, particularly Leo’s warped, reptilian-like and embittered rival Vasili.
If you’re reading Russian history, I’d recommend it just for a refreshing way to see the syllabus, and if you’re not taking history at all, I would still say it’s worth a go. Not only will you be shocked by the setting (it must be exaggerated… right?) but you’ll be drawn in by a crime novel that sets itself apart from others in its genre. And this is coming from someone who never reads mystery books.