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Child 44
Tom Rob Smith
Grand Central Publishing 2008
438 pages

If you do not read Child 44 you will never read anything like it.

This Tom Rob Smith mystery / thriller is a police procedural set in Stalin's Soviet Union. Smith's ability to convey the paranoia and schizophrenia of this world and the inability of a good man to investigate a series of child murders in a society that is officially absolutely perfect and where a question is a sentence makes Child 44 such a captivating and unusual read.

This is a world where you have to watch your back while everyone else is using it as a target and where you are born guilty of something and it is just a matter of time before someone denounces you. This passage from Child 44 gives a good idea of the world this mystery takes place in: "He was gambling not only with his life but with those of his family. … he was acting on his own. Independent action was always a risk since it implied the structures put in place by the State had failed." (p. 273).

Leo Demidov is an MGB (KGB) officer who is asked by one of his subordinates to look into the murder of his child. Since there are no murders in Stalin's Soviet Union, there is nothing to investigate. Eventually, Leo comes to the conclusion there is something going on: that conclusion alone can cost him his life.  Trying to prove there has been a murder and solving it could cost others their lives as well. Multiply this by 44.

This mystery is also about Demidov and his journey as he realizes that as an MGB agent he has been responsible for the death of the many innocent people he arrested and that his entire life has been a fraud. If he can prove these murders and find the killer Leo believes he will have redeemed himself somewhat.

Tom Rob Smith is extraordinary at creating the very claustrophobic angst ridden world in which he has set his police procedural. Child 44 follows the "show don't tell" rule to the letter and immediately plunges the reader into this dark society. When you put down this novel (it is after all 438 pages and a person has to eat) you find yourself looking over your shoulder for a while so convincing and enthralling is Smith's writing.

There is a lot more to Child 44 than just the mystery novel aspect. This novel has as many facets as a well-cut diamond and a diamond it is.