Friday, 31 July 2009
Child 44 - a mystery thriller
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith was devoured in less than 24 hours. It is a thriller, but with distinction: it is set in Russia in 1953, in the deepest of Stalin's regime. Leo Demidov is a State Police officer of the MGB. He thinks his life is all set, except that one day a child is found dead on the railroad tracks, and the father says he was murdered. In Stalin's Soviet state, murder couldn't exist, since the Soviet Union was good and the ideal state for mankind, so evil couldn't be there. Leo's trip into his heart of darkness goes to a place that still haunts most of us who grew up in the shadow of the Cold War - just how bad, and frightening, was Stalin's Soviet Union, and what would a person do to survive? In the long cold winters after the Great War (as WW2 was called in the USSR), what did the poor villagers do outside Moscow, where much of the wealth and food supply went? How did they survive? And in a nation that prized spying on one's neighbors and colleagues for acts of treason or suspicious behaviour, who can Leo trust when he realizes that in the heart of the USSR, along the railway lines, children are being murdered?
This book is not for the faint of heart. That's my warning to you, Gentle Reader. It is a very good mystery, one that only at the end as Leo unravelled it, did I understand all the links set up in the book. It is a frightening book, on many levels, not the least of which is the state of constant fear everyone lived in. One word, and bang! a character is taken in for questioning, most often never seen again. How could a society function like that? We see many betrayals as characters fight to survive, and the discovery of some things higher than survival - love, the truth, faithfulness. In the midst of madness (for surely the state while Stalin ran it was mad), acts of courage in the face of death.
The characters are all very well drawn, the pacing is fast, and the story is well-plotted. The setting - the setting raises the story from a good mystery thriller, to an extraordinarily good one. There are varying viewpoints in the book, and I liked this. It lets us see Russia through many eyes and opinions and responses. A fascinating glimpse into a world (that Stalinesque world doesn't exist, even if the legacy continues somewhat) thankfully mostly gone now.
For those who don't know, the Soviet Union did have a serial killer: Andrei Chikatilo.
One of my favourite things about the book is that Leo is not the perfect agent he thinks he is. He thinks he is a war hero, and does everything right, but he discovers that his actions have many unintended consequences, yet he keeps trying to make it right again. I really liked him, and many of the secondary characters.
A really enjoyable read, just make sure you have some time since it is very hard to put down!