Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith. Published 2008 by Grand Central Publishing. Fiction. Crime Fiction.
I pounced on a hardcover copy of Child 44 as soon as I laid eyes on it; between my interest in books about Russia and the fact that it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, it seemed like a great fit. And it's a thriller, and I love a good thriller.
I was half right.
Long on plot and style, Child 44 is a great pageturner about a series of murders in the 1950s Soviet Union. The setting is richly detailed and immersing, and the hero, Leo Demidov, is a Stalinist true believer who finds his faith in the system in which he's deeply invested shaken after the bizarre murders of several children. He's a respected security officer with a beautiful wife, but no one is ever secure in this world, and today's favorite is tomorrow's traitor. His deputy is gunning for him, fellow officers mistrust him and soon everything depends on his ability to prove that these murders are related and compel his superiors to act.
The emphasis here is definitely on the story and the setting. I enjoyed the fast pace of the plot and the twists and turns, and I love how much research Smith did on the Soviet criminal system and political and social culture. His writing is top-notch and he creates a riveting, scary and fascinatingly foreign world where losing favor with the boss means affecting the fate of one's whole family, and where rumors and innuendo can snuff out a life as easily as flicking a light switch. I liked the characters, especially Leo and his wife Raisa, but I wish that Smith had developed them more and given them a little more room to breathe. I didn't really buy the big transition in their relationship that occurs about three quarters of the way through, probably because I wasn't really sold on their relationship in the first place.
The one thing that really disappointed me, and what keeps me from recommending it without reservation, is the ending, which was far too convenient and dependent on coincidence. Of all the gin joints in all the world... yeah. And the backstory that explains it all didn't work for me, either. But you know what? Other than that, it's a fabulous read and I'd recommend it for thriller readers, for literary readers looking for something compelling for the beach bag and for readers interested in Russia for the cultural side of the story. That should cover a lot of readers!
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.