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Child 44    by Tom Rob Smith order for
Child 44
by Tom Rob Smith
Order:  USA  Can
Grand Central, 2008 (2008)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 is the best novel of any genre that I've read this year to date. It reminds me of another extraordinary book from several years ago - The Lovely Bones - in three ways. I didn't like it at first. Its subject matter is often horrific. And yet, in the midst of the worst that mankind can do to each other, Tom Rob Smith cracks open the darkness to shine a small sliver of hope on his characters - and readers.

The story opens on starvation and cannibalism in the Ukraine, then fast forwards twenty years to the denounce or be denounced world of Stalin's Soviet Union and shows us two boys playing - only one goes home. Leo Stepanovich Demidov, a war hero and member of the MGB (State Security Force), is assigned to deal with it - not because a child's death is a priority in Soviet Russia, but because the parents are telling people their son (who was found naked and with his mouth stuffed with dirt) was murdered, and the father is a low-ranking MGB member. Leo's job is to get everyone on the same page - accidental death - as 'There is no crime' (by definition) in the ideal state. Leo, whose only ambition is to serve his country, applies pressure to the family and to the witness who saw the boy with a man before his death. He does his job.

In Moscow, Leo works at the Lubyanka, 'an assembly line of guilt.' He does his job again - taking amphetamines to maintain alertness as is his habit - when he captures Anatoly Brodsky, a veterinarian who treated an American Embassy worker's pet and is accused of spying. Flight confirmed Brodsky's guilt. But this time Leo makes an enemy when he hits his second in command, Vasili Ilyich Nikitin, after the latter shoots the couple with whom the traitor took refuge. Vasili dreams of revenge. Though Vasili is Leo's foil as the more thorough villain, and despite Leo's obvious deep reservations about some of his own actions, it's really hard to like him early in the story. He does seem close to his parents, has used his influence to improve their situation, and is married to Raisa, a beautiful schoolteacher. Despite his awful job, at least his home life is idyllic ... isn't it?

Well, Smith quickly tears his protagonist's life apart, first making him choose between denouncing Raisa or losing the trust of his superiors (an error likely to be fatal). Then, when Leo remains surprisingly loyal to his wife, Stalin's death saves them from immediate execution. Vasili rises to the task of evil nemesis, first dispatching the couple to a town in the Ural Mountains - where Leo is to take the lowest ranking position in the poorly paid or respected militia - and continuing to mercilessly hound them thereafter. In Voualsk, Leo learns what Raisa has really thought of him and his job for all these years, and both of them - with no hope left for their own futures - take on what seems a quixotic quest, after Leo discovers that more children have been murdered close to railway lines (as was the first), and with the same modus operandi.

At first, their investigation only does collateral damage, and Leo dispairs. But eventually, with help from decent and brave people all over Russia, a pattern begins to emerge. At the same time, the authorities take notice of the illegal and unwanted investigation, sending Leo and Raisa on the run from Vasili and his henchmen across the country and with no resources. Though the obvious comparison for this exciting debut thriller is Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park - and I'm a huge fan of that Smith's - I found this one even better. He's just as tough on his hero as the former is on Arkady Renko, but Leo shows greater character development, and the unrelenting twists, turns and betrayals in Child 44 make it impossible to put down. If you pick up only one novel in 2008, make it Child 44.

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