CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Child 44 was a blind buy. I saw it at Barnes & Noble, read the jacket cover and said, “Well I guess I have to buy it now.” Sometimes it works out for you, and sometimes you buy… I don’t know, Billy and the Clonasaurus. This one worked out for me.

Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel is loosely based on real-life Russian serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo – nicknamed the Butcher of Rostov – who murdered more than 50 women and children throughout the 1980’s before being caught and arrested in 1990. In an interesting twist, Smith has taken his serial killer and placed him in 1953, when the Soviet Union’s official line was that, in their perfect society, there was no crime.

The novel centers around State Security officer Leo Demidov. As a good revolutionary, Leo unquestioningly supports the Soviet Union, communism, and the lengths the State will go to to keep it’s citizens in line. When the bodies of two murdered children are found, the State wants to bury it, forgo any real investigation and arrest whoever’s most convenient. But after being betrayed by a jealous subordinate and receiving a shocking revelation from his wife, Leo begins to question his carefully constructed worldview and sets out to find the real killer.

Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel is definitely a page-turner in the classical sense of the word (or is that the only sense of the word?). Once you get into it, the pages just fly by. What I thought was so interesting was that usually, these sorts of stories generate a sense of danger from the relationship between the cop (the good guy) and the killer (the bad guy). That’s not exactly the case here, as danger isn’t posed only by the killer, but by the State. Leo lies awake at night, waiting for the knock on the door, waiting for the guards to burst into his apartment and arrest him and his wife. Here, it’s not the bad guy, but the “good guys” that keep you guessing.

If I had to find something to complain about, it would be that by the end of the book everything falls into place a little too conveniently. Not enough to make things unenjoyable by any stretch, but enough so that you notice. The prose also feels a little loose in places, understandable as this is Smith’s first novel. With as good as this one is, I doubt it’ll be a problem in the next one.

There are a bunch of authors out there who write a certain character, then revisit them every few years. Tom Clancy has Jack Ryan. Dean Koontz has Odd Thomas. There’s a small possibility left open that we’ll be seeing more of Leo Demidov, although any future novels would, in a certain respect, retread already-covered ground. Eventually, the ever-present threat posed by the State would get stale, and that’s what really sets this novel apart. Could a sequel live up to it’s predecessor? Give it a 60/40 shot.

This book is getting great reviews, which isn’t surprising. I’ve also read that Ridley Scott has already snatched up film rights. For his first major outing, Smith has done a great job, putting a new spin on an old concept. This is definitely worth the extra couple of bucks for the hardback.

8 out of 10 stars

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