During the era of Joseph Stalin’s hold over a nation where crime does not exist, a vicious child killer is stalking the cities in Soviet Russia, leaving a trail of blood behind him. A trail the government refuse to acknowledge to keep the cloud of their vision for a perfect world covering its citizen’s eyes.
Disgraced Security Officer Leo Demidov’s world comes crashing down, when he realises the State he has risked his marriage, his parents and even his life for won’t admit what’s right in front of them, and it’s down to Leo and his wife Raisa to hunt down a criminal he has, until now, denied the existence of. Not an easy task when he and his family have a target on their heads for the crimes they have committed.
During my time at school, whilst studying History for my GCSEs, we focused on Nazi Germany, and Hitler’s rise to power. Everyone knows the horror that Adolf Hitler inflicted upon the world in his fight to bring power to Germany. Everyone has heard of the deaths he caused, the lives he destroyed and the horrifying legacy he left in his wake during World War Two. What a lot of people don’t realise is that there is another part of History which is equally terrifying (if not more so), down to the actions of one Joseph Stalin. I’m not going to go into too much detail about Stalin’s visions for a perfect world, but suffice it say that his plan of action involved almost all of his beloved Russia being too scared to even breathe a word to anyone of their actual opinions of his ideologies. In a nut shell, if you wanted someone executed, all you would have to do is tell one of Stalin’s Security Officers that you suspected that someone of a crime. They would be stalked for a short time and then hauled into questioning about the alleged crime, then pretty much forced into confessing to an act you may or may not have done – all to keep the allusion that crime does not exist. This is a pretty terrifying world to live in, but that was life for millions of people – and quite honestly, a brilliant setting for a book.
The book focuses on the protagonist Leo Demidov’s struggle to maintain his high status within such a dystopian world. The book begins with a prologue of a harsh winter, where food is scarce and even the common cat has become something so rare, that a sighting of one fills a small family of three with hope that they may eat that evening. Whilst hunting for the cat, one of the two children falls into the trap set by an anonymous man, leading to what may have been the first many child murders. Behaving quite unnaturally for readers today, upon learning of her son’s death, the mother astoundingly accepts it, and continues to fight for the survival of hers and her youngest son’s life. This sets up the tone of the book remarkably well, leading us to realise that while this occurrence takes place many years before the start of the main novel, there is little chance of the darkness of the book lifting.
The character of Leo demonstrates immediately that he is a man with morals, but the love he has for his State often clouds his judgement. Though we are told more or less straightaway that the actions of the Security Officers at that time can be cold, heartless and downright despicable, Smith writes his protagonist in a way that shows that while we may not agree with what he’s doing, Leo is a man that we can warm to, given how he feels for those around him, and for the life he holds dear to him. I have no doubt that, were Leo a real person, he would be one that many of the people in Soviet Russia would fear, but Smith lets us get to know the man behind the mask; the man whose first instinctive is survival. He spares the life of the children whose parents were accused of helping a spy. This simple act of generosity demonstrates that we are right to back this character who, on the outside, may not deserve our sympathy.
When Leo is given the choice to denounce his wife, who has been accused of passing information to a foreign government, we see the real man emerge. He knows the risks, he knows what’s at stake if he chooses to stand beside his family, but he contemplates it with serious consideration. We don’t know which he will choose. And this is quite a strong element within this book. Smith has set up quite a romantic bond between Leo and Raisa, but also between Leo and Soviet Russia. Until the moment of his choice, we have no idea which way he will go, and that’s what makes this such a page-turner.
In saying this, however, it should be noted that one of the flaws that Smith has fallen for is the fact that it takes about half of the book for the real story to actually begin. The first half is the inner battle that Leo faces when it comes to holding his status and the contributing factors to his eventual fall from grace, but at the end of the day, this book is a murder mystery thriller. Though Smith does not forget this when writing about Leo’s life, as a reader, I found myself wishing he would hurry up and begin his search for the notorious killer who seems to be killing for sport. Because of the time Smith takes to set up the book, we are only left with half a novel focusing on the hunt for a killer we have known about since the prologue. It depends how you look at it – the fact that this book focuses heavily on the B-Plot (Leo’s fall from grace) a little more than the A-Plot (the murder of the children) can be seen as a good thing, because it separates this book from most of the other stories under the same genre that focuses almost entirely on the A-Plot. But for me, I think he overplayed it a little, and I was counting the pages until the real story kicked in.
The Verdict: I have never really been a fan of books that involve a plot centred on the military in any time of history, but I can honestly say this is one of the most intriguing novels I’ve ever read. I knew virtually nothing when it came to Stalin’s ideology of a Utopian State, but this story not only entertains with its plot, but informs the reader that once, there was a time when you could trust no one, not even your family for fear of losing your life. It can be quite a difficult read at times, but I would strongly insist you push past this and continue to quite an exciting and unforeseen climax the book has to offer. If you’re looking for a crime novel that not only tugs at your heartstrings, makes you sick at the thought of what a man can do to children and keep you guessing until the very end page, this is the one for you.
Child 44 was recently adapted into a movie starring Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman.
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster