Tom Rob Smith

Child 44

"... a cracking debut."


Moscow 1953: Leo Demidov is a treasured member of the MGB, arresting and interrogating men and women who have been accused spying. In a time when people were afraid of being arrested, fingers are pointed and innocent people are being tortured and executed without any evidence. Others are sent to the gulags to die a slow and painful death. Leo upholds the law of a country who’s citizens are living in fear of being dragged from their beds and shot without question. It is a law Leo believes in one hundred percent.

Then, after a man has been tortured and shot, one of the names on his list of informants is Leo’s own wife, Raisa. Does he hand her over to the authorities where she will undoubtably be killed, or does he stand by her? To him, the decision is obvious and soon he has been transferred to a small town in the Urals - demoted. There Leo finds the two bodies of a boy and a girl who have been killed in an identical manner. The exact same way a small boy was killed in Moscow. A crime he was ordered to cover up as an accident.

Now the evidence is overwhelming and Leo begins to investigate with the help of Raisa and his commanding officer, Nesterov. Soon, a nemesis from the MGB is after Leo and both husband and wife who are so close to finding the murderer of forty-four children are soon sought themselves by the MGB. Before the case is closed, Leo will have paid a huge price - emotionally as well as physically.

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Child 44 takes place during Stalin’s rule of Russia, when the nation feared their leader and the men who were placed to uphold his ideals. Freedom of speech was not an option. The first half of Child 44 shows Smith detailing this sense of claustrophobia and suspicion amongst the population. People informed against one other, many innocents were sent to their deaths on suspicion alone. Russia had to be seen by the outside world as the perfect State. This could only be managed by cruelty of unbelievable proportions. Smith details Leo’s existence as one of the most celebrated officers of the MGB. His lifestyle is good. He has a smart flat, a beautiful wife and certain privileges that put him well above the normal populace who are starving and have to queue for hours for basic food. Then Smith shows the dramatic reversal of fortune that can make a man crash and burn. Despite the overpowering images Smith conjures up, the tone is not too heavy. The portrayal of Leo’s life is never overly dark, just representing that this was the way of the USSR. The plot of the murdered children is touched upon at the beginning of Child 44 but it is only when Leo is sent to the Urals that this particular plot strand come in to play. This second half of the book is extremely gripping and I was literally flying through the pages to get to the end to see what happens. Smith keeps the plot moving at a cracking pace and the cat and mouse race between Leo and the MGB is well written and continues that sense of people desperately covering the truth with many lies. Tom Rob Smith is a screenwriter and has started his career as a novelist with a cracking debut. Child 44 is in turn horrific, thought provoking, thrilling and eventually heart-warming. A marvellous tale very well told. As a debut this is outstanding. I look forward to see where Mr. Smith takes us in his next novel.

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