Book review: ‘Child 44,’ by Tom Rob Smith
Special to the Daily
The crafting of a gripping, well-paced thriller is a special skill, attempted by many but truly delivered on by only a lucky few.
“Child 44,” by Tom Rob Smith, is one of the exceptional ones — a tightly woven page-turner that will have the reader up late, enthralled with the dystopian Soviet-era world that serves as the backdrop for this sinister and dark mystery.
Built from a gossamer set of seemingly unrelated strands of events, his narrative accelerates as it builds, with the weaving of the web growing tighter and tighter around the captivating character at the center, Special Security Officer Leo Demidov.
Demidov is everything an intriguing protagonist should be; he is flawed, yet relatable, very much like Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, a character who has dark corners to his personality and hidden depths of violence. Like Bourne, Demidov has a murky sense of morality in a country where family members will not hesitate to turn on their loved ones to save themselves. And like the Bourne series, which translated superbly to film, “Child 44” made for a haunting movie adaptation, which was released in 2015 and starred Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman.
In the Soviet Union, a country that claimed no crime existed within its communist tenets, the investigation of anything out of the ordinary is fraught with danger, for the goal of living successfully in the USSR’s oppressive system meant not drawing the attention of the all-powerful State, where everyone was watching and being watched and no real trust existed. Smith successfully folds this controlling societal framework into the story, thus elevating the tensions within the story, where a hunted person fares poorly in a country in which friendships and loyalties mean nothing. “The killer would continue to kill, concealed not by any masterful brilliance but by his country’s refusal to even admit that such a man existed, wrapping him in perfect immunity.”
As provocative as Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984,” “Child 44” is even more unnerving, as Smith’s backdrop is not some dystopian realm of fiction but the real historical landscape of the Soviet Union’s infamously suspicious and ruthless government. “Child 44” is like a layer cake, where each level of filling would make an enticing and thrilling story just on its own. One layer is the frightening string of murders that reveal a deranged and calculating killer, which is enough fodder for an absorbing read. It is the profoundly disturbing real-world setting of post-World War II USSR that adds a richer dynamic to an already well-crafted puzzle.
The author builds his characters with finesse, coaxing their personalities out of the maniacal depths of a deeply disturbed and decaying society. It is a world where being alone and being lonely are the best ways to stay alive. There are moral dilemmas at every turn, and innocence is a relative state of existence.
The first in what is undoubtedly a gripping trilogy, “Child 44” does not disappoint, earning its spot on the best-sellers’ lists and its place alongside the likes of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Gorky Park.”
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