Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Review of Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (Simon and Schuster, 2008)

1953 at the tail end of Stalin’s rein, paranoia and fear pervade society, with millions being denounced and sent to the gulags in the quest to create a perfect society.  Leo Demidov is an idealistic agent of the system who works for the state security service, the MGB, investigating and arresting enemies of the state.  Whilst Leo is aware of the political machinations within his own organisation, he does not question the system as a whole.  However, his idealistic veil is slowly removed, first through having to persuade a colleague that in a country with zero crime his young son could not have been murdered, then witnessing the death of an innocent man at the hands of a MGB colleague, and being asked to investigate the political activities of his wife.  Denounced, he is exiled to a new city and demoted to the bottom rung of the militia.  There he discovers that child murderer is at work; a murderer the state refuses to acknowledge exists.  Determined to investigate further, he’s forced to go on the run in order to bring the killer to justice.

Child 44 is an assured and competent debut.  The novel starts with a well crafted opening hook and unfolds at a steady pace.  The historical contextualisation and sense of place is good throughout, with Smith depicting a paranoid and oppressed society where even the security services and family members are afraid of each other.  The characterisation is solid, especially the idealistic and often naive Leo Demidov, and his more worldly-wise wife, Raisa.  The prose is for the most part fairly workmanlike and the story fits the category of historical police procedural thriller, rather than a literary novel, as I’ve seen it described elsewhere.  The plotting is well handled up until near the end.  The twist was purely a literary device and undermined the credibility of the story.  It could have been resolved in a more straightforward manner, which for me at least would have been more satisfactory.  Overall, an engaging and crafted story with a contrived resolution.


Anonymous said...


I'm a long time lurker, first time commenter.

Based on all the reviews you've made of books I've also read, it seems our reading tastes are very similar. So I was surprised that you didn't like one this more. I thought it was a great book (although I didn't care much for the sequel).

Anyway, I enjoy your blog and look forward to your reviews.

Ray Kolb

Rob Kitchin said...

Hi Ray, this was a very solid 4 star review for me except for two things that held it back. The first was the naivety and unworldliness of Leo, which given he worked for the MGB didn't seem credible. The second was the resolution which was a huge contrivance, and whatsmore was not needed. It really worked to undermine the credibility of the plot. So, I did enjoy it, but it had its frustrations, especially the ending.

Casual Businessman said...

Awesome blog! I agree with your review of Child 44. I halfway told myself it was based in fact. I had to break that illusion with the nature of the twist your referring to and the nature of the hero as you point out. For some reason that is how I enjoy novels more, if they are somehow based in truth. Do you have anything to recommend that mingles the underworld of crime with some truthfulness to the story? Cheers!