by Tom Rob Smith
Leo Demidov is a state security officer with a sincere belief in his country where, according to the official party line, its citizens live in a crime-free society, a workers' paradise. Leo and his wife, a teacher, stay under the radar living comfortably, unlike most Muscovites. When the murdered bodies of children lead Leo to form the opinion that he is dealing with a serial killer, he cannot elicit help because such crimes do not officially exist. Child 44 is a remarkable look at Stalinist Russia and a first-rate character study of a single person trying to serve justice.
A gripping novel about one man's dogged pursuit of a serial killer against the opposition of Stalinist state security forces, Child 44 is at once suspenseful and provocative. Tom Rob Smith's remarkable debut thriller powerfully dramatizes the human cost of loyalty, integrity, and love in the face of totalitarian terror.
A decorated war hero driven by dedication to his country and faith in the superiority of Communist ideals, Leo Demidov has built a successful career in the Soviet security network, suppressing ideological crimes and threats against the state with unquestioning efficiency. When a fellow officer's son is killed, Leo is ordered to stop the family from spreading the notion that their child was murdered. For in the official version of Stalin's worker's paradise, such a senseless crime is impossible—an affront to the Revolution. But Leo knows better: a murderer is at large, cruelly targeting children, and the collective power of the Soviet government is denying his existence.
Leo's doubt sets in motion a chain of events that changes his understanding of everything he had previously believed. Smith's deftly crafted plot delivers twist after chilling twist, as it lays bare the deceit of the regime that enveloped an impoverished people in paranoia. In a shocking effort to test Leo's loyalty, his wife, Raisa, is accused of being a spy. Leo's refusal to denounce her costs him his rank, and the couple is banished from Moscow. Humiliated, renounced by his enemies, and deserted by everyone save Raisa, Leo realizes that his redemption rests on finding the vicious serial killer who is eviscerating innocent children and leaving them to die in the bleak Russian woods.
The narrative unfolds at a breathless pace, exposing the culture of fear that turns friends into foes and forces families to hide devastating secrets. As Leo and Raisa close in on the serial killer, desperately trying to stay a step ahead of the government's relentless operatives, the reader races with them through a web of intrigue to the novel's heart-stopping conclusion. (From Barnes and Noble.)
• Birth—February 19, 1979
• Where—London, England
• Education—B.A., Cambridge University
• Currently—lives in London, England
After graduating from Cambridge University in 2001 and spending a year in Italy on a creative writing scholarship, Tom Rob Smith went to work writing scripts and storylines for British television. He lived for a while in Phnom Penh, working on Cambodia's first-ever soap opera and doing freelance screenwriting in his spare time.
While researching material for a film adaptation of a short story by British sci-fi writer Jeff Noon, Smith stumbled across the real-life case of "Rostov Ripper" Andrei Chikkatilo, a Russian serial killer who murdered more than 60 women and children in the 1980s. Chikkatilo's killing spree went unchecked for nearly 13 years, largely because Soviet officials refused to admit that crime existed in their perfect state. Intrigued, Smith recognized the potential of this concept as a work of fiction and worked up a script "treatment." His agent, however, suggested the material would be better showcased in a novel.
The result was Child 44, a gripping crime thriller about a Soviet policeman determined to stop a child serial killer his superiors won't even admit exists. Smith upped the action ante by setting the story in the Stalinist era of the 1950s, a period when opposing the state could cost you your life. And, in MGB officer Leo Stepanovich Demidov, he created the most fascinating Russian detective since Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko.
Child 44 became the object of an intense bidding war at the 2007 London Book Fair. (The buzz only increased when director Ridley Scott bought the film rights.) But the book proved worthy of its hype, garnering glowing reviews on its publication in the spring of 2008. Scott Turow (no slouch in the thriller department himself) proclaimed, "Child 44 is a remarkable debut novel—inventive, edgy and relentlessly gripping from the first page to the last."
Once Leo and his wife are banished to a town in the Ural Mountains, where another murder is committed, the narrative whips into action as a fugitive drama. The language becomes leaner, the style more fluid and cinematic, as Leo's forbidden investigation causes more innocent people to suffer and transforms this onetime war hero into a criminal. In a society riven by fear and mistrust, even a serial killer seems less threatening than a man who has learned to think for himself.
Marilyn Stasio - New York Times Book Review
Set in the Soviet Union in 1953, this stellar debut from British author Smith offers appealing characters, a strong plot and authentic period detail. When war hero Leo Stepanovich Demidov, a rising star in the MGB, the State Security force, is assigned to look into the death of a child, Leo is annoyed, first because this takes him away from a more important case, but, more importantly, because the parents insist the child was murdered. In Stalinist Russia, there's no such thing as murder; the only criminals are those who are enemies of the state. After attempting to curb the violent excesses of his second-in-command, Leo is forced to investigate his own wife, the beautiful Raisa, who's suspected of being an Anglo-American sympathizer. Demoted and exiled from Moscow, Leo stumbles onto more evidence of the child killer. The evocation of the deadly cloud-cuckoo-land of Russia during Stalin's final days will remind many of Gorky Park and Darkness at Noon, but the novel remains Smith's alone, completely original and absolutely satisfying.
Grisly, gruesome, and gory are just three ways to describe this debut novel by young British screenwriter Smith. While adapting a short story by sf writer Jeff Noon, Smith came across the true account of Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who after killing more than 50 women and children was executed in 1994. His story inspired Smith to write this grim, 1953-set novel, which ties together just about all of the worst aspects of the Stalinist regime. The Ukrainian famine and the unrelieved horror of the gulag, among other historical hooks, add to the saga of ex-soldier and police official Leo Demidov, who dissects the morbid clues left by the killer. The paradox of crime in a workers' paradise denies any legitimacy to Leo's investigation, since, by definition, such repellent crimes are impossible. With some 20 foreign sales to date and film rights already in Ridley Scott's hands, this successor to Hannibal Lector's lurid mantle has nonstop plotting, a nonstop pace, and even a surprise ending. Horror genre readers will thrill to it; others may be advised to ask for a barf bag as well as their date due slip. Suspense collections in large libraries will likely need several copies to fill waiting lists.
Barbara Conaty - Library Journal
1. Leo's character evolves over the course of the book. What do you see as the most significant catalyst for change?
2. What propels Leo to go forward in his quest for the murderer: fear, compassion, or a sense of justice?
3. The relationship between Vasili and Leo is contentious from the beginning. Does Vasili feel pure hate, contempt, or jealousy for Leo? Why?
4. When Raisa reveals the truth of their marriage to Leo, were you surprised at his reaction? Would you have made similar choices under the circumstances? When does personal conviction trump duty and loyalty?
5. Who do you think was ultimately responsible for incriminating Raisa. What would it be like to live in a society in which everyone is under suspicion of crimes against the state?
6. Does the book's portrayal of life in a totalitarian state remind you of any other books?
7. In 1953, the year of Stalin's death, there were 2,468,524 prisoners in the Gulag system. Do you think that legacy affects Russian culture today?
8. Which character's duplicity or innocence did you find most surprising, and why?
(Questions issued by publisher.)