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June 12, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | Books | June 12, 2008 |

As history student, I spent a lot of time in history class back in college. For me, no period in world history is more fascinating than the one between early 20th century — starting with the fall of the Romanov dynasty — and the rise and eventual fall of Communism. The most politically gruesome period during this time span was the reign of Joseph Stalin, a motherfucker whose sense of paranoia was only surpassed by his cruelty. By most accounts, more people were killed in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s reign than were killed in the Holocaust. The man not only killed his enemies, but those who he thought might be an enemy, others whose popularity or opportunism felt threatening, or even family members who took the big piece a chicken. The slightest whiff of suspicion led to interrogation and torture, and then eventually, a confession that justified the interrogation (the Communist Party didn’t like to have egg on its face, so if they thought you did something, then goddamn it, you did). To belong to the Communist Party required a great deal of balance — if you screwed up, even for something as minor as inadvertently talking to someone who ended up on a “list” five years later, then you’d also end up on a list of known associates, and likely be sent to prison, a forced labor camp, or to your death by execution; however, if you did your job exceedingly well and rose the ranks too quickly, you could just as well find yourself at the bottom of a mass grave.

Stalin’s regime provides the backdrop to Tom Robb Smith’s debut novel, Child 44, a crime thriller based loosely on the murders committed by Andrei Chikatilo, a.k.a., The Butcher of Rostov. Leo Demidov, a high-ranking member of the secret police, is an upstanding, by-the-books Communist who performs his duties diligently and without question, trusting in the system, even though he occasionally has some unspoken reservations about the guilt of many of the people he arrests. He gets himself in a spot of trouble, however, when he gets on the bad side of a fuckstick subordinate — a vicious son of a bitch who shoots first and justifies it later — who is jealous of Leo’s success. And because the Soviet Union was what it was, all it took was a baseless accusation to end your career or even your life. So, the jilted subordinate called the party loyalties of Leo’s wife, Raisa, into question, putting Leo in the awkward position of having to spy on his own wife. After the party digs up some made-up bullshit on Raisa, Leo is forced to either denounce her or, by virtue of not denouncing her, have his own loyalties called into question. He refuses and, in a stroke of brilliant luck, Leo and Raisa are not executed, but demoted to a lower position in a crappy city, where they are left basically to suffer a humiliation worse than death.

In the midst of all of this, Leo also discovers a series of related murders — all children with their stomachs pulled out and their mouths stuffed full of bark. However, to even suggest the existence of a serial killer — a symbol of Western capitalistic excess — would treasonously reveal doubt, since a serial killer would imply there’s a crack in the Soviet system. So, Leo is forced to investigate the murders on the down-low, knowing that if he’s discovered, his wife, his family, and everyone he knows will likely be imprisoned or executed by virtue of their association with him.

The detective story at the heart of Child 44 is gripping and suspenseful enough by itself, but by setting the investigation during Stalin’s reign and adding the element of life and death politics, Tom Rob Smith raises the stakes, creating a masterful piece of crime fiction. Every word, every sentence, every movement in the story is brilliantly orchestrated to achieve an almost perfect mystery. It’s incredibly paced and terrifyingly unpredictable, and he captures the intense, but justified paranoia, of living in the Soviet Union during that time. The novel is relentlessly bleak — dark and suffocating — and in Leo Demidov, Smith has created an indelible anti-hero, one that — thanks to Ridley Scott, who has already purchased the rights (please don’t fuck it up) — will eventually bring to the big screen (Richard Price is adapting). If the movie is half as good as the book, and if Tom Rob Smith follows through on his promised trilogy, Scott may have a very successful franchise on his hands.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.

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Child 44 by Tom Robb Smith / Dustin Rowles

Books | June 12, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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