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Child 44: My take on the book by Tom Rob Smith

This is another one of those I heard there's a movie coming, I better read the book quick scenarios.  Child 44 is not the type of novel I typically reach for first; I usually gravitate to stories more grounded in relationships, stuff like JoJo Moyes Me Before You, Jonathan Tropper's This is Where I Leave You, Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette and Joshua Henkin's The World Without You, but when I learned Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace—the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—were headlining the movie set in Stalin-era Soviet Union, and that it was set for release this spring, I thought I'd better check it out.

If you've been following my Wolf Hall Wednesday posts — don't lie, you probably haven't — but if you had been, you'd know I got distracted from my reading of Hilary Mantel's historical fiction by Tom Rob Smith's thriller. It's definitely a compelling mystery of the can't stop reading variety. It begins with two young boys out hunting a house cat, hoping to bring it home to their mother to cook up for supper. It's the winter of 1933 and they're starving — millions of Russians are starving, and a house cat —a sight rarely seen when all the rats and mice have already been eaten by the villagers — is a luxury ...
"In a community where grown men chewed clods of earth in the hope of finding ants or insect eggs, where children picked through horse shit in the hope of finding undigested husks of grain and women fought over the ownership of bones"

Desperate times that make for dystopian-sounding fiction, like something straight out of The Hunger Games. Except that it's historically accurate, the way it was during the famine of 1932 and 1933. We quickly fast forward twenty years later with Stalin firmly in power and such hunger and poverty supposedly eliminated —or at least covered up — and along with it the fear of crime. What crime can exist when its root cause —poverty— is eliminated? So when a case of a child being killed arises, the MGB —the State Security Force — sends in Leo Demidov (played by Tom Hardy in the film) MGB officer and war hero to reassure the public, the child's death is nothing more than a tragic accident.  Leo understands that the country is still in a state of transition, and there may still remain such anomalies but that it's important to convince the ordinary citizenry that everything is going according to plan so they don't lose faith in the system. He's very devoted, intent —if sometimes uncomfortable with the tactics used to maintain peace and order — on maintaining the illusion. But when another child loses her life in a similar fashion, Leo can no longer look away.

Investigating the crime is difficult when all around him other officials are not only doctoring reports  to represent the facts as the MGB wants them to read, but fighting to keep their own positions within a system that creates paranoia in its personnel and the people of the Soviet Union. Getting people to talk is difficult, finding the truth not only near impossible but deadly and dangerous.

Within that framework Leo comes up against blockade after blockade, including resentment from his own wife, Raisa, and fury from the commanders higher up the line.

I couldn't put it down. I was drawn in by the portrayal of the system, the crime and the punishment, which was such a deviation from the rosy intention, where Trust but Check becomes Check on those We Trust as well as Leo's slow but sure awakening to the shortcomings of that system. Smith's writing style, clean and compact, no nonsense and terse, creates a built in sense of dread as he takes us on two parallel journeys, that of the killer, and that of Leo, the hunter.

Here's how Smith describes the Lubyanka, the MGB headquarters, through Leo's eyes —
"he found it difficult to believe they'd by chance chosen a building whose proportions were so unsettling: neither tall nor squat, wide nor narrow, it was somewhere awkwardly in between. Its fa├žade created the impression of watchfulness; rows and rows of windows crammed together, stacked up and up, rising to a clock at the top which stared out of the city as though it were a single beady eye."
p. 69
CIA photo of the Lubyanka from the early 50's  Source: CollectingSovietHistory.com

And of what happens within it —
"Entering the main corridor, Leo wondered how it would feel to be led down to the basements with no leave to appeal and no one to call for help. The judicial system could be bypassed entirely. Leo had heard of prisoners who lay abandoned for weeks and doctors who served no other purpose than the study of pain. He taught himself to accept that these things existed not just for their own sake. They existed for a reason, a greater good. They existed to terrify. Terror was necessary. Terror protected the revolution. Without it, Lenin would've fallen. Stalin would've fallen. Why else would rumurs concerning this building be deliberately spread by MGB operatives, muttered on the metro or on tramcars as strategically as if they were releasing a virus into the population? Fear was cultivated. Fear was part of his job. And for this level of fear to be sustained it needed a constant supply of people fed to it."
p. 70

Child 44 is 438 gripping pages which I highly recommend. I don't have a rating system but if I did I'd give it 4 out of 4 surprising twists and turns.

Here's the trailer for the movie which comes out April 17th here in the US and in the UK. To the rest of my international readers — I'm so grateful you stop by  — check out this link to see when Child 44 is coming to your country.