three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-Child 44In his debut novel, 30-year-old Cambridge University graduate Tom Rob Smith borrows details from the 1980s Russian child and women serial killer Andrei Chikatilo (the "Rostov Ripper") to create a chilling portrait of Stalinist Russia.

The Story: In 1953, in the waning days of Russia’s Stalinist era, World War II hero Leo Stepanovich Demidov, now in the State Security Force (later the KGB), happily serves his Communist state, despite all its contradictions. Then he discovers a series of brutal child murders. Yet because his worker’s paradise contains no crime, the serial killer cannot, theoretically, exist. Instead, the state attributes the children’s deaths to unrelated accidents. Leo and his wife Raisa know better. But when they attempt to track the killer, Leo, now considered a criminal, is demoted and then exiled to the Ural Mountains with his wife—and his world as he knew it starts to unravel.
Grand Central. 448 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 0446402389

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"One of the rare pleasures of the book-reviewing trade is first hearing all sorts of advance hype about a novel and then finding out that every word was true. … The author’s prodigious research and his ability to drop it seamlessly into his descriptions of the Russian landscape become increasingly evident." Dick Adler

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a classic Saul-to-Paul conversion tale and psychological thriller of a kind that is rare today. … [E]ach page brings fulfillment in the tradition of Dostoyevsky’s psychological realism and Charles Dickens and his predictably unpredictable story lines, complete with illogical occurrences, incredible coincidences and nail-biter scrapes." Tom Dodge

Newsweek 4 of 5 Stars
"Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 is a remarkable debut novel on a number of levels, not just as an absorbing thriller but also as a penetrating deconstruction of the myths of what passed for justice in the Soviet Union. … Child 44 achieves its other aim of debunking the myth that police states at least have the virtue of wiping out crime." Andrew Nagorski

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Once] Leo and his wife are banished to a town in the Ural Mountains, where another murder is committed, the narrative whips into action as a fugitive drama. … In a society riven by fear and mistrust, even a serial killer seems less threatening than a man who has learned to think for himself." Marilyn Stasio

San Antonio Exp-News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Smith] has produced a page-turner that is more memorable for its atmosphere … than for its grace or eloquence as a detective thriller. … [Leo’s choosing whether to renounce his wife] is this test of loyalty, concocted by Leo’s nemesis and second-in-command, Vasili, who has every reason to want to see his squad leader demoted, humiliated and executed, that is the true heart of Child 44." Steve Bennett

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The screenplay may well have been this author’s best format for this story, since Mr. Smith is very handy with small, nifty plot tricks but is also very long-winded when summoning Stalin-era atmospherics. … Motivation counts for nothing among the book’s characters; it’s just an excuse for the author to put them through the elaborate paces of a far-flung chase through Martin Cruz Smith country." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

First-time author Smith initially conceived of Child 44 as a movie, and his cinematic prowess shows. His atmospheric writing gave critics detailed pictures of the endless labor, poverty, awful living conditions, and frigid climate of Stalinist Russia. There is such a thing as an overabundance of details, however, and a few reviewers commented that Smith privileged atmosphere over plot, at least in the first half of the novel. The action picks up when Leo and his wife flee to the Urals. While critics lauded the relationship between these two, a few faulted the archetypal killer (symbolic of secret Soviet atrocities) and felt that the other characters’ motives were unexplained. Most also mentioned the clumsy ending, but they felt that it detracted very little from this compelling thriller.