Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

smith_child.jpgDespite my passion for reading, there are some genres that have largely escaped my interest or attention; romance, Christian fiction, and self-help are aisles of the book store that I have failed to peruse. And normally, the mystery/thriller genre falls in there as well; aside from some John Grisham and Michael Crichton read as a teenager, that's just not where my enthusiasm has taken me. Probably the only reason I even heard of Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 was that it was longlisted for the Booker Prize back in 2008, a noteworthy event because genre fiction so rarely gets any attention from the literary prize panels. Still, even that was not enough to get me to buy the book. But when I saw a paperback copy sitting in the laundry room of my barracks in Kuwait, I grabbed it, with plans to read it on the plane back. Well, I mostly slept on the plane ride back, so it was until near the end of December that I finally got around to reading it.

Smith's is a detective story with a twist: the protagonist detective, Leo Demidov, is an officer of the Soviet secret police, a true believer doing the dirty work that kept Stalin's totalitarian regime running in the years following World War II:

His only ambition was a general one: to serve his country, a country that had defeated fascism, a country that provided free education and health care, that trumpeted the rights of the workers around the world, that paid his father--a munitions workers on an assembly line--a salary comparable to that of a fully qualified doctor. Although his own employment in the State Security force was frequently unpleasant he understood its necessity, the necessity of guarding their revolution from enemies both foreign and domestic, from those who sought to undermine it and those determined to see it fail. To this end Leo would lay down his life. To this end he'd lay down the lives of others.

As the novel opens, Demidov has been asked by his boss to handle a rather delicate situation. A junior member of the state security agency has recently lost a child, and he and his family are making noise with accusations of murder, despite the official determination that the boy was accidentally hit by a train. Murder being a supposed impossibility in the perfection of the Stalinist society, such accusations are wholly unwelcome to the government. Demidov's job is to make the family understand this:

Leo's mission was to quash any unfounded speculation, to guide them back from the brink. Talk of murder had a natural drama which no doubt appealed to certain types of fanciful people. If it came to it he'd be harsh: the boy had made a mistake for which he'd paid with his life. No one else need suffer for his carelessness. Maybe that was too much. He needn't go so far. This could be resolved tactfully. They were upset--that was all. Be patient with them. They weren't thinking straight. Present the facts. He wasn't here to threaten them, at least not immediately: he was here to help them. He was here to restore faith.

Yet in the endless depths of paranoiac conspiracy that infested the Soviet system, even as powerful a man as Demidov feels perpetually in danger. That danger becomes a reality as Demidov realizes that a workplace rival may be plotting against him:

Leo glanced across at his deputy, a man both handsome and repulsive in equal measure--as if his good looks were plastered over a rotten center, a hero's face with a henchman's heart. There were just the tiniest visible fractures in his attractive facade, appearing at the corners of his mouth, a slight sneer that, if you knew how to interpret it, hinted at the dark thoughts lying beneath his good looks. Perhaps sensing that he was the subject of attention, Vasili turned and smiled a thin, ambiguous smile. Something pleased him. Leo knew immediately that something must be wrong.

In a further example of the twisted web of deceit and betrayal that was fundamental to Stalin's regime, even Demidov's apparent victory over his rival is short-lived, and before long his own family is dragged into the matter, either to test Demidov's loyalty or to punish him, or perhaps both. At a certain point this all begins to raise questions in Demidov's mind about the slavish obedience he has paid to the state and its maxims, including in particular the notion that crimes like murder have been purged from the worker's paradise.

It is not hard to see why Smith's thriller got as much attention as it did. His prose avoids cliche, his characters are not cut from cardboard, and his plot has its share of twists and turns without resorting to illogical coincidence (though there are some convenient intersections). And considering that the main thrust of his narrative has to be the progress of the crime investigation, he does an excellent job infusing the story with the societal distortions inevitable to life in a police state, offering a literary element apparently uncommon to most such books. For those looking for a worthy point of entry for exploring the mystery/thriller genre, there are assuredly much worse places to start than with Child 44.