Along with the award-winning fiction and classics that I dig, I’m also a huge fan of the paperback thriller. There’s quite nothing like a Lee Child or Jo Nesbo to forget abt your cares for a while and immerse yourself in the world of mutilated bodies, cryptic talismans and the brooding alcoholic detective. So, it is no wonder that I would love Child 44 – Tom Smith’s debut novel set in Stalin’s Russia. I must add that this is unlike any thriller I’ve read before as the tension here has as much to do with the chase of a dangerous psychopath who is murdering children around the western countryside and carving out their stomach, as it is abt the State machinery which is pursuing the protagonist Leo Demidov, a member of the State Police (MGB), for his efforts to catch the murderer. In case you are rightly puzzled, this is because in Stalinist Russia, crimes such as murder, burglary and prostitution cannot exist and therefore, the murders must be written off as accidents unless Leo can prove otheriwise and stop the murderer. Thus, the chase for the serial killer is intertwined by the State Police’s machinations, persecution, and eventual hunt of Leo & his beautiful wife Raisa.
The novel’s prologue describes the disappearance of a young boy Andrei who had gone hunting in the forest with his younger brother. Jumping several decades, the novel then brings us to the dead body of a young boy, Arkady, who may have committed suicide on the railway tracks. Parallel to this thread is introduced the thread abt Anatoly, a veterinarian, who is suspected by the MGB of being a spy and is pursued and eventually killed by them. The protagonist Leo Demidov is part of the team which investigates Arkady’s death & writes it off as suicide, as well as the team which finally captures Anatoly.
Leo is a part of the MGB whose task is to wipe out the faintest stench of any real or imagined dissent or disloyalty to the State through continuous spying, interrogation, torture, threats & lies. This is a world where Anatoly, a respectable veterinarian, is forced to flee from his home as he fears the net is closing around him, though he has committed no wrong & is simply ‘suspected’ of being a foreign spy. Leo is a part of the system that persecutes innocent citizens like Anatoly and believes that in doing so, he’s actually serving the country. Like most of his colleagues, he too initially rejects evidence that a murderer is committing the killings around the countryside. It is only when he becomes a pawn in bureaucratic politics and is framed for being disloyal to the State, does he slowly begin to reexamine the foundations on which his profession has rested. He realizes that he is the only one who can apprehend & stop the murderer since the actual State refuses to even accept that there have been any murders!
Alongside the story of Leo’s gradual awakening, Tom Smith also infuses the thriller with the slowly-raveling & unusual love story of Leo & his wife Raisa. It is a love that is neither rooted in the conventional framework of marital affection & respect, nor does it seek succor from some deep-seated passion. Raisa, a school teacher & free thinker, who is critical of the Soviet State’s politics and Leo’s role in furthering its atrocities, emerges as his equal and his true partner once Leo becomes a fugitive, being relentlessly punished for questioning the State’s decree. When love finally blossoms between the two, it is with the poignant acceptance that it is bound to be fleeting.
The second half of the novel revolves around Leo’s demotion & exile where he continues to invstigate the murders with Raisa’s support. While the ending is a bit too pat for my liking, one also realizes that a tragic end, while more realistic, wouldn’t necessarily be more satisfying. Perhaps my only genuine crib is that the murderer is never fully fleshed out or terrifying, perhaps because the MGB and State policies are far more so.