Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

by Rachel Baker on August 3, 2008

Stories of redemption and human survival fascinate me to the nth degree. I enjoy stories of great epiphanies which lead to inner turmoil and a change in ideologies and one’s faith in humanity.  I love stories about the search for the truth and how that truth changes someone’s sense of self.

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith is such a story.  The main character is a former war hero, who through a series of events gets denounced from his high profile position in the MGB, and sent to a small town, far away from Moscow. He figures out there have been series of murders happening across the country-side. Because he has been denounced and is considered an enemy of the state by his nemisis, he can’t really investigate these murders on his own. During the investigation, he has a series of epiphanies that changes his belief in the system he had put so much faith into.

The catalyst for this story is loosely based on the serial killer Andrei Chicatilo who killed children in the Soviet Union between the late 1970s through 1990.  Child 44 is set in 1950s Stalinist Russia.  The reader gets a sense of what life was like at that point in history for the Russians.  A great deal of the plot revolves around the Stalinist way of life. Unfortunately, the detail began to get a little tedious.  The detail gave way to some twists in the story that weren’t really necessary, causing the plot to make superfluous detours. That said, though some of the detours were predictable and unnecessary, the author did a great job of moving each minor storyline in a direction that flowed well for the totality of the story.

Child 44 was really quite good in the sense that you got all the way through half the book before you realized the actual investigation of a child’s murder hadn’t even started happening yet. The premise for the story line is the idea that one is guilty until proven innocent, and murder did not exist, as far as the State was concerned. To get to the murder investigations, Smith had to set up the idea that the state agency, MGB, actually defended the government against the common people. The author had to help his reader understand the people’s paranoia and how easy it was to be deemed guilty of some crime against the state.

The author did one of the few things that makes it difficult for me to stay engrossed in a novel. I was no longer as interested in the rest of the book when I was told by the author in italics what Child 44 meant in the middle of the story.  I finished the book, but I wasn’t as intrigued as I had been.  I suspected by this point there would be a huge plot twist at the end, and was curious as to where the author would take me. The final twist was one the novel could have done without. In all fairness, Smith did a really good job of getting to the final plot twist, it just felt a little too obscure.

Though the author almost turned me off two-thirds of the way through, I think this is a pretty impressive first novel. I look forward to reading future novels by Tom Rob Smith. I would recommend Child 44 to readers who enjoy thrillers with a twist of historical true crime mixed in.

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