In Stalin’s Soviet Union, crime does not exist. But still millions live in fear. The mere suspicion of disloyalty to the State, the wrong word at the wrong time, can send an innocent person to his execution. In Child 44, Tom Rob Smith takes us into this totalitarian world.
Leo Demidov is a security officer in Stalin’s Soviet Russia and a decorated war hero who has attained the respect and trust of his Superiors and enjoys some privileges as a result. With his wife Raisa, they live in a reasonably comfortable apartment and Leo has been able to provide his parents with comfortable accommodation as well. His second in command, Vasili, is extremely resentful of Leo’s good standing with the powers that be and quietly goes about undermining his decisions and actions in an effort to discredit him.
Leo is requested by his Superior officer to investigate a suspected murder of a child, to reassure the parents that the unfortunate death of their son has been a terrible accident; nothing more. In an effort to do just that, Leo is confronted by an angry community, convinced that he is not interested in finding out the truth.
Kuzmin, Leo’s Superior officer sets him a different challenge: to take part in an interrogation of a suspected traitor. Leo’s investigation of this case has convinced him that Brodsky is innocent, but Vasili has managed to persuade Kuzmin to let Leo lead the interrogation to prove his loyalty to the Government. To be accused of such a crime inevitably leads to a conviction of guilty in Stalin’s Russia, regardless of proof of innocence.
In the meantime, Leo’s wife has been under surveillance also, suspected of working with foreign agencies and Kuzmin presents Leo with some photos which seem to prove Raisa has been meeting with a traitor. Leo is commanded to undertake his own investigations of Raisa, report back to Kuzmin and affirm their suspicions are correct. Aware if he doesn’t, he and Raisa will be outcasts or imprisoned, Leo refuses to denounce his wife, instead, maintaining her innocence.
Leo and Raisa are consequently banished to a large industrial city where Leo is to work as a lowly official in the local militia, and Raisa to continue as a teacher at the school. Whilst living in appalling conditions, they discover the body of another child, murdered near a train station with damage identical to the injuries inflicted on the child murdered in Moscow. This discovery sets them on a race against time to discover who has committed these appalling crimes, only to find they are searching for a serial killer.
I found this book very hard to put down and when reading through the acknowledgements noticed that it is based on an actual event that did take place. The lives of the Russian people during Stalin’s era are shown to be almost unendurable and bereft of joy or peace of any kind. It is well researched and the Stalinist Statistics at the end, appalling. One example: Number of political executions between 1930-1953 – 786,098.
This is a compelling and absorbing story and I will definitely be looking out for more of Tom Rob Smith’s work. Highly recommend.