38. - 551.) Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith – I had been seeing the distinctive cover (a man walking down railway tracks below a large 44 with the Red Star between the numbers) at bookstores for a couple of years. The novel starts in 1933 with a starving Ukrainian family trying to survive the winter. (Stalin had cruelly taken much of the harvest from the
causing millions of Ukrainians to die.) Desperate for any food, two boys pursue a cat into the forest and kill the cat. Suddenly they are attacked and one of the boys taken. Twenty years later Leo Demidov, a rising officer with the MGB (secret police) and WW II hero, is diligently capturing large numbers of Ukraine residents considered dangerous to the State. He brushes aside a colleague’s insistence his young son was mutilated and murdered. His life changes when he must track down a veterinarian who is seeking to escape the U.S.S.R. Leo’s belief in the communist system is shaken when he realizes the vet was trying to escape because he realized he was being investigated. In Stalinist Russia everyone investigated was bound to be found guilty. Sentences were death or the gulag. Torture was routinely used to gain the answers desired by interrogators. Leo’s life is completely turned upside down when he is denounced. He refuses to denounce his beautiful wife, Raisa. Only Stalin’s death saves their lives. They are sent to Voulsk several hundred kilometers east of Moscow where he will be a member of the militia. The crushing downturn in their lives lays bare their real relationship. Each has entered and stayed within the marriage for different reasons. Their personal lives are far more complex than the average mystery. Shortly after arriving in Voulsk he realizes there is a serial killer of children. No one is pursuing the killer because the U.S.S.R. could not have a killer roaming the country. Each killing has been solved by finding some undesirable member of the community guilty. It is Kafkaesque. Leo and Raisa decide to risk their lives because they are questioning the system by seeking a serial killer. Mystery heroes come from many different circumstances. Few can be stranger than the detectives pursuing a killer who, the State says, cannot exist. Life in the U.S.S.R. in the early 1950’s fits Hobbes definition of “nasty, brutish and short”. Everyone lives in fear. I was reminded of Arkady Renko who, a generation later, also facing a State interested only in finding “undesirable” killers. I find it hard to read about the killer of children. His gruesome attention to detail is well described. As the book wore down I thought the inevitability in the story had the heroes destined to a Le Carre ending. It is a harrowing book. I look forward to Smith’s next book if the victims are not children. Excellent. (Sept. 27/10) (Best of fiction 2010) Moscow
- Bill Selnes
- Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
- I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.