Hello, bookworms. To continue my historical fiction fascination of late, today I want to share with you something that I found particularly unique within that category: the first book of the Leo Demidov trilogy, Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44. Outstandingly unexpected, everything about this book draws you in, even as it tries to push you out.
I picked up this book in an effort to round out my reading list; I’ve been reading a myriad of historical fiction stories lately, and even though I’d say this one still fits that bill, it covers a more recent period of history than I tend to prefer. Furthermore, I rarely pick up a story heavily featuring any sort of politics, and those are certainly significant here. Although Child 44 was nothing like what I was expecting, it was also completely different than anything I’d ever read, which made it the best kind of unpredictable that a book can be.
About this book: Set in the 1950’s in Stalinist Russia, one man, calling himself Leo Demidov–I kept picturing Leonardo DiCaprio–who has risen high in the political hierarchy of the military, struggles against falling from the comfortable pedestal of power he’s grown used to. Every word and action is a matter of life or death, and either ignorance or unconscionable malice are required to keep one’s sanity. A single wrong move could ruin an entire family or network of friends, and among the citizens there are planted invisible spies and liars who provoke misbehavior only for the sake of creating more “enemies” to destroy. Leo’s entire existence is shaken as he must confront the matter of separating true friends from false ones, and righting wrongs that have been made not only legal but necessary to survival. When Leo comes into close contact with a series of child murders, he realizes that his government is not only uninterested in finding the real killer, but will refuse to acknowledge that such a man even exists–thus paving the way for the murderer to continue his killing spree indefinitely. Leo finds himself at a professional, personal, and moral crossroads that puts him in the most dangerous situations of his life and draws even his own identity into question.
“While guards were indifferent to whether prisoners lived or died, escape was unpardonable. It made a mockery not only of the guards but of the entire system. No matter who the prisoners were, no matter how unimportant, their escape made them important. The fact that Leo and Raisa were already classified as high-profile counterrevolutionaries would make their escape a matter of countrywide significance. Once the train had come to a stop and the guards had noticed the dead body caught up in the wire, a count would be done of all the prisoners. The escapees’ carriage would be identified; questions would be asked. If answers weren’t given prisoners might be shot. Leo hoped that someone would be sensible enough to tell the truth immediately. Those men and women had already done more than their share to help them. Even if they confessed there was no guarantee that the guards wouldn’t make an example out of the entire carriage.”
On Smith’s writing techniques: I began reading Child 44 with the impression that this book was a murder mystery. Even the title, referring to the first of the dead children that Leo comes across, suggests this. I can’t deny that there is a mysterious set of murderers taking place in the story. And yet, I never felt that what I was reading was a murder mystery. I think a big part of this is just the fact that Smith is a great world-builder. There’s so much careful detail about the places in which the characters find themselves and background about the rules operating in these places that they feel very real. Even more significantly, Smith writes his characters impeccably well. The point of view shifts from person to person easily, almost imperceptibly, and gives just as much depth to each. Hundreds of pages pass with this level of attention given equally to the people and places and politics surrounding Leo’s life before he even begins to piece together a case for the murders.
The plot involving the murders hardly seemed to be a driving force for me in the story at all. It was hard to pin down exactly what held my interest so strongly, since nothing even remotely good happens for any of the characters until more than 350 pages have passed. Every apparent success is abruptly revealed as a greater problem. In a book with fewer than 500 pages, that’s a significant chunk of the story the reader must pass before gaining any sense of hope for the outcome. After giving some thought to what kept me invested for so long, I determined that Child 44 was more of a story about surviving Stalinist Russia than solving a murder case. The murderer poses no threat for Leo or his wife, but it was concern for their safety, and worry about the other government agents, and indignation for the innocent citizens that kept me interested in what would happen next, even enough to check out the second book of the series, The Secret Speech. There are few characters more interesting in literature than the ones who are kicked down over and over again, and seemingly without reason, never stop getting back up. Smith has provided an array of these characters, and although I did appreciate the plot, I think this book is worth reading purely for the sake of the compelling way in which it was written.
To wrap up: There are definitely some disturbing details in this book. People are killed, tortured, starved, hunted, abused, misled, etc. and that is what made the matter of survival so emotionally involving in Child 44. You need a strong stomach for this one, but if you have that, don’t miss this series. I give 4.5 out of 5 stars. I believe there’s also been a movie made recently of the first book of the series, if you’re interested in checking that out. I haven’t watched it yet, but I always end up watching the film versions of books I’ve read.
- Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the only other book I can remember reading that’s set in Russia, and even though it’s nothing like Child 44, it kept coming to mind as I was reading. I love the sound of Russian names, and there are some truly beautiful places there, as well. It’s an interesting place to read about, and Anna Karenina doesn’t take as strong a stomach if you’re interested in experiencing Russia through literature but are unsure if Child 44 is the right book to start with.
- Although the book takes place across Europe in more modern times rather than in Russia’s past, James Patterson’s The Postcard Killers may be more interesting to readers attracted to the horrors of murder that appear in Child 44. This one is definitely a murder mystery, but I found the characters and the personal connection of the detective to the case interesting in that story in ways similar to my appreciation for the characters and plot of Smith’s book. If you’ve read either of these books, you may be interested in the other.
What’s next: I’ve posted about a few first-in-a-series books over the last few weeks that I’m thinking about following up on now that I’ve read more of the later books. These include Galbraith/Rowling’s Cormoran Strike trilogy, Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and now Smith’s Leo Demidov trilogy, and I’ll probably want to do full posts for each of the further books I’ve read so I’ll have room to talk about each story in its own right, and then compare to the series at large a little. If you’re anxious for any of those reviews, let me know and I’ll plan my posts according to interest. Otherwise, I’ll write them in the order I read them. If I post again before I’ve decided how to undertake the follow-ups project, I’ll talk about Sara Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls, which I read with Child 44, thinking they’d be somewhat similar. They’re not really, beyond that they include murders, but I found it interesting enough to want to share.
Don’t hesitate to share any questions, comments, or suggestions you may have with me! I’d love to hear what you think, or even just what you’re reading. 🙂
The Literary Elephant