BY NICO VREELAND
[This riveting thriller is a C4 Great Read.]
2008, Grand Central
When I started reading Child 44, some weeks after I got it, I had forgotten its premise and the jacket-back description that had convinced me to buy it. The novel opens in a hellacious frozen wilderness, where two starving children struggle to catch a scrawny cat, desperate for even the tiny sustenance it would provide. If anyone sees their prize, they’ll be murdered for it.
I assumed this was a futuristic dystopia, nuclear winter or some such premise. In fact, Smith set Child 44 in Stalinist Russia, which turns out to be quite a bit more terrifying than a post-World War III wasteland. Under the Generalissimo, people must make agonizing choices like either denouncing their friends or staying loyal and suffering the torture and certain death of the gulag. There is no crime in Stalinist Russia, because the MGB, the fearsome State Security force, swiftly deals with any citizen who is not perfectly obedient and lawful. Or, at least, that’s the Party line.
Against this backdrop unfolds a white-knuckle thriller more riveting than any I’ve read in a long time.
In perhaps the best feature of this gut-wrenching premise, Smith follows State Security agent Leo Demidov, an MGBer with a promising career (which means, among other thing, that he’s willing to denounce and betray just about anyone to get ahead).
For the novel’s first 50 pages, Leo mercilessly hunts a suspected anti-State activist, who’s running for the border—a man he knows is innocent. Leo runs his underlings and himself into the ground in a brutal manhunt. He’s ruthless, though not sadistic, gripped by desperation and fear, hooked on meth, exhausted, and unhappy even in victory. Through it all, somehow, I found myself rooting for him. I found myself… liking him (I still don’t exactly know why) and that likability makes the utter hellishness of Leo’s life all the more gripping.
Smith makes it clear that even the agents of the oppressive State are afforded no protection from the Party’s merciless machinations. They might, in fact, get the worst of it, if only because they have more to lose. And Leo does lose—I won’t go into more detail so as to preserve the thrills of the narrative, but suffice it to say that Smith does not shy away from punishing his hero (not that he doesn’t deserve it, and not that he doesn’t understand that he deserves it).
But all of this is only the setting. The meat of the plot is Leo’s hunt for a serial killer, a monster who preys on young children—44 of them, as you might guess. Leo finds his humanity and his honor in the pursuit of this killer, though it might cost him everything.
The mystery of the crimes is not an intricate one—in any other nation with a decent police force, the killer would’ve been caught quickly. But in Stalinist Russia, where it’s unthinkable to even admit that a crime has been committed, Leo must work against the gears of the State he knows so well. He must outsmart not the suspect, but the twisted agents of justice, who will try to stop him on principle.
On a structural level, Child 44 is seamless and extraordinary, without being loud about it. Smith’s prose never boasts, but it possesses an artfulness in its unflinching, hard-life muscle. Like this:
The logistics of moving people were no different from the logistics of moving grain; pack it in and expect to lose five percent.
Smith’s characters are likewise understatedly well crafted. He bounces between people’s heads frequently, often several times within a scene, sometimes within a paragraph. He manages to make this feel neither obtrusive nor cheaterly. Smith’s goal is not to tell you a riddle, like most mysteries, but he doesn’t sacrifice an iota of drama or suspense, even when the killer is known. Any of these qualities in a narrative is a feat; all of them together is nearly a miracle.
Simply put, this is an outstanding read for just about any kind of reader. If you like literary books, this won’t disappoint. If you like thrillers, this is better than 95% of them. If you like teen paranormal romance… well, there’s no help for you. Anyone else, though, should give this a shot.
Similar books: Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn, and The Last Child, by John Hart, for more gut-wrenching mystery/thrillers. The Gone-Away World for a real dystopian adventure story (and a cracking good one), and Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov, for another tale of a terrifyingly oppressive State.