Set in Stalinist Russia, Child 44 is a curious murder mystery with a bit of Jason Bourne about it. Main Character Leo Demidov is a high-ranking office in the MGB, aka the Russian Secret Service. During this time, we follow Leo as he comes to recognise the reprehensible things he and his colleagues do in the name of protecting his country. He realises that many of the people he’s been sending away to the Gulag’s were innocent, and were only sent in the name of protecting the ‘crimeless’ state. This distrust comes to a head when Leo is persuaded to denounce his wife as a spy. When Leo refuses he and his wife, Raisa, are sent to a small village where Leo is demoted to the militia, essentially the Russian police force.
It is in the Militia that Leo begins to suspect that there is a child-murderer on the loose, who is responsible for 40 deaths all across the USSR. Leo having lost everything, sets off, along with Raisa, to catch the murderer at all costs.
Child 44 is an interesting novel that tries to be a lot of things. It starts off as an engaging critique of Stalinist Russian and the nature of the MGB, and in that regard the novels works as a brilliant historical drama. That is soon combined with the murder mystery aspect of the novel, which is reminiscent of the likes of Seven and Silence of the Lambs. Where the novel is let down is in the final third, in which Leo turns into a Jason Bourne/Jack Reacher type super spy which doesn’t follow the tone or setting of the novel.
Tom Rob Smith writing is easy to read and hard to put down. Smith is a master at creative tense and riveting chapter finale’s without going over the top, and he nimbly avoids complex and overbearing description. The character of Leo is identifiable and easy to empathise with, though some of the side villains of the piece can be a little wooden.
Though there is elements of Russian culture thrown in, Smith never truly seems to embrace the setting and it serves more as a plot device then a real breathing world.
Though I throughly enjoyed the novel, the ending felt slightly cheap and far too picturesque. Though this is a trilogy, the turn towards the spy action at the end of Child 44 dulled any sense of excitement or desire to read the other two novels in the series. But for the first 2 thirds of the novel Child 44 couldn’t be more recommended.