Book: Child 44

Cover image

Child 44: A Novel

Author: Tom Rob Smith
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

MGB officer Leo is a man who never questions the Party Line. He arrests whomever he is told to arrest. He dismisses the horrific death of a young boy because he is told to, because he believes the Party stance that there can be no murder in Communist Russia. Leo is the perfect soldier of the regime.

But suddenly his confidence that everything he does serves a great good is shaken. He is forced to watch a man he knows to be innocent be brutally tortured. And then he is told to arrest his own wife.

Leo understands how the State works: Trust and check, but check particularly on those we trust. He faces a stark choice: his wife or his life.

And still the killings of children continue…

A propulsive, relentless page-turner.
A terrifying evocation of a paranoid world where no one can be trusted.
A surprising, unexpected story of love and family, of hope and resilience.
Child 44 is a thriller unlike any you have ever read.

“There is no crime.”

Stalin’s Soviet Union strives to be a paradise for its workers, providing for all of their needs. One of its fundamental pillars is that its citizens live free from the fear of ordinary crime and criminals.

But in this society, millions do live in fear…of the State. Death is a whisper away. The mere suspicion of ideological disloyalty—owning a book from the decadent West, the wrong word at the wrong time—sends millions of innocents into the Gulags or to their executions. Defending the system from its citizens is the MGB, the State Security Force. And no MGB officer is more courageous, conscientious, or idealistic than Leo Demidov.

A war hero with a beautiful wife, Leo lives in relative luxury in Moscow, even providing a decent apartment for his parents. His only ambition has been to serve his country. For this greater good, he has arrested and interrogated.

Then the impossible happens. A different kind of criminal—a murderer—is on the loose, killing at will. At the same time, Leo finds himself demoted and denounced by his enemies, his world turned upside down, and every belief he’s ever held shattered. The only way to save his life and the lives of his family is to uncover this criminal. But in a society that is officially paradise, it’s a crime against the State to suggest that a murderer—much less a serial killer—is in their midst. Exiled from his home, with only his wife, Raisa, remaining at his side, Leo must confront the vast resources and reach of the MBG to find and stop a criminal that the State won’t admit even exists.


If all that Tom Rob Smith had done was to re-create Stalinist Russia, with all its double-speak hypocrisy, he would have written a worthwhile novel. He did so much more than that in Child 44, a frightening, chilling, almost unbelievable horror story about the very worst that Stalin’s henchmen could manage. In this worker’s paradise, superior in every way to the decadent West, the citizen’s needs are met: health care, food, shelter, security. All one must offer in exchange are work and loyalty to the State. Leo Demidov is a believer, a former war hero who loves his country and wants only to serve it well. He puts contradictions out of his mind and carries on. Until something happens that he cannot ignore. A serial killer of children is on the loose, and the State cannot admit it.

To admit that such a murderer is committing these crimes is itself a crime against the State. Instead of coming to terms with it, the State’s official position is that it is merely coincidental that children have been found dead, perhaps from accidents near the railroad tracks, perhaps from a person deemed insane, or, worse still, homosexual. But why does each victim have his or her stomach excised, a string around the ankle, and a mouth full of dirt? Coincidence? Leo, in disgrace and exiled to a country village, doesn’t think so. How can he prove it when he is being pursued like a common criminal himself? He and his wife, Raisa, set out to find the killer. The revelations that follow are jaw-dropping and the suspense doesn’t let up. This is a debut novel worth reading. —Valerie Ryan

Barnes and Noble

A Selection of Barnes & Noble Recommends

A gripping novel about one man’s dogged pursuit of a serial killer against the opposition of Stalinist state security forces, Child 44 is at once suspenseful and provocative. Tom Rob Smith’s remarkable debut thriller powerfully dramatizes the human cost of loyalty, integrity, and love in the face of totalitarian terror.

A decorated war hero driven by dedication to his country and faith in the superiority of Communist ideals, Leo Demidov has built a successful career in the Soviet security network, suppressing ideological crimes and threats against the state with unquestioning efficiency. When a fellow officer’s son is killed, Leo is ordered to stop the family from spreading the notion that their child was murdered. For in the official version of Stalin’s worker’s paradise, such a senseless crime is impossible — an affront to the Revolution. But Leo knows better: a murderer is at large, cruelly targeting children, and the collective power of the Soviet government is denying his existence.

Leo’s doubt sets in motion a chain of events that changes his understanding of everything he had previously believed. Smith’s deftly crafted plot delivers twist after chilling twist, as it lays bare the deceit of the regime that enveloped an impoverished people in paranoia. In a shocking effort to test Leo’s loyalty, his wife, Raisa, is accused of being a spy. Leo’s refusal to denounce her costs him his rank, and the couple is banished from Moscow. Humiliated, renounced by his enemies, and deserted by everyone save Raisa, Leo realizes that his redemption rests on finding the vicious serial killer who is eviscerating innocent children and leaving them to die in the bleak Russian woods.

The narrative unfolds at a breathless pace, exposing the culture of fear that turns friends into foes and forces families to hide devastating secrets. As Leo and Raisa close in on the serial killer, desperately trying to stay a step ahead of the government’s relentless operatives, the reader races with them through a web of intrigue to the novel’s heart-stopping conclusion.

Imagine a world, if you will, where crime does not exist. A startling proposition that seems outlandish, but our imaginations, of course, need not be bounded by the rules and restrictions imposed by realism. It would be a world, one might suppose, where equality reigned, where the thought of violence was so alien that it need not be practiced. People would smile more. They would cooperate more. And they would create a microcosm of peace that, town by town, country by country, could grow exponentially into worldwide tranquility.

Or maybe not. After all, Stalinist Russia operated under a policy, strictly enforced, that “there is no crime.” This was a Communist society, where social excesses were supposed to wither away and disappear and where the concept of violent death “had a natural drama which no doubt appealed to certain types of fanciful people.” So murders, no matter how horrific, were instead classified as accidents, if they were even investigated at all. The thought of any criminal disruption to the social order was even more suspicious than the general level of state-induced distrust that sent millions to the Gulag or to their deaths. There was no crime, perhaps, but only in the sense that the State held its customary monopoly in this aspect of life, as well.

This is the world depicted in Tom Rob Smith’s stunning debut thriller Child 44, a novel that manages the rare feat of improving after a second reading. The first time around, I admired Smith’s ability to shed his 28-year-old, London-based screenwriter self for a similarly aged protagonist obeying the statutes of the early 1950s version of the KGB, but spent more time in a state of surprise, caught up in the thriller elements. Rereading Child 44 brought out the novel’s meatier pleasures, its ability to create vivid characters in a world both alien to our own and chillingly recognizable.

Leo Demidov, a member of the MGB (as the State Security Force was called in 1953), follows orders. If his bosses tell him to visit the family of his colleague Fyodor Andreev and reassure him that his four-year-old son Arkady died of an accidental drowning and was not (as members of Fyodor’s family insist) raped and murdered with dirt shoved into his mouth, Leo does it. If the MGB insists that middle-aged Anatoly Brodsky is a traitor and a spy with information on other suspicious types that can only be gleaned by breaking bones and the administration of a crude truth serum called sodium camphor, Leo does those very things. So what if the truth is covered up, if confessions are false or the soothing words to a devastating family add further poison? This is the culture Leo lives in: Not only is there no crime, there is
no trust.

Smith has us watch as the shaky ground upon which Leo’s livelihood is founded on gives way, one fault line at a time. The cases of Anatoly Brodsky and Arkady Andreev leave Leo with glimmers of dissatisfaction, as well as a palpable sense that perhaps the culture of distrust is hardly indicative of a superior society. Then things become a good deal less abstract: Leo’s wife, Raisa, an elementary school teacher in a state-sponsored Moscow institution, falls under suspicion of the MGB. Leo is placed in a dilemma no less heart-rending for being predictable: turn Raisa in and save his and his parents’ lives, or proclaim her innocence and face the worst? The answer seems obvious to the reader but Smith shrouds Leo’s decision in considerable suspense by making the stakes so high as to be unbearable. Child 44 has no room for inconsequential choices because Stalinist Russia had no room for them either.

What happens next once again gives rise to themes beyond the ordinary purview of the police procedural. Leo is shipped off to a remote small town, demoted to the lowliest rank of police investigator. When another child is murdered, brutalized in the same fashion Arkady officially was not, Leo discerns a pattern not only of an active monster but of his own blindness, a willingness to compartmentalize and see only what he chooses that has persisted since childhood.

This lack of insight into his true self is made clearest in Leo’s interactions with Raisa, the perfect metaphor for the Soviet culture of fear and also for the faint hope of a greater redemption. What was once a marriage built on practicalities is irrevocably altered by their changed circumstances, and the portrait Smith paints is of a young woman, without the need to cling to civility for survival, bent on speaking the truth, no matter how vituperative her emotions become:

…what was she supposed to do? Pretend he’d risked everything for a perfect love? It wasn’t something she could just conjure on demand. Even if she’d wanted to pretend, she didn’t know how: she didn’t know what to say, what motions to go through. She could have been easier on him. In truth, some part of her must have relished his demotion. Not out of spite of vindictiveness but because she wanted him to know: this is how I feel every day. Powerless, scared—she’d wanted him to feel it, too. She’d wanted him to understand, to experience it for himself.

Smith also demonstrates that Leo’s powerlessness is his greatest weapon in catching a serial child murder cloistered by a society fixated on the nonexistence of crime. The details of the investigation itself may seem a tad haphazard to the sophisticated crime fiction reader, but they are rooted in an abject lack of communication between towns afflicted by similar crimes. Even if the penultimate twist is overly telegraphed by the prologue—a stark, harrowing section that could stand well on its own—it also allows Leo to reflect further on the connectedness of his childhood and adult worlds and how he missed key links: “Had he chosen this path, or had it chosen him? Had this been the reason he’d been drawn into the investigation when there was every reason to look the other way?”

Child 44 does not offer pat answers to this question, only suggestions that a society founded on secrecy and suspicion will thwart meaningful connections and support corroded ones. The success with which Leo’s dark tale is played out against this broad thematic canvas portends great things for Smith, as well as for Leo, left with the vision to discern everywhere the evidence of crimes both terrifyingly specific, and monstrously general. —Sarah Weinman

Views: 1,049 • Modified: • Elapsed: 0.017 sec