The dangers of thinking for yourself
Robin Wallace- Crabbe
WORLD War II hero Leo Stepanovich Demidov seems to be satisfying all the demands made of an officer of the MGB, the state security force. His boss, Major Kuzmin, is looking after Leo’s career interests while the team unquestioningly respects its great Soviet leader’s chilling sayings, stuff such as ‘‘ better to let 10 innocent men suffer than one spy escape’’, ‘‘ trust but check’’, ‘‘ check on those we trust’’. Then Joseph Stalin dies on page 170 of this fat, engaging, extensively researched thriller by first- timer Tom Rob Smith.
The title, Child 44 , refers to children dispatched during several decades by a serial killer, and the plot involves the investigation of these terrible crimes. The story kicks off with the Ukrainian famine of 1933. Close to death in a village where everybody has eaten everything, an old woman lets the cat she loves go free rather than devour it. Two boys track the creature to the nearby forest where, in snow, they plot its capture. But at the moment of their success a man pounces on one of the hunters. ( The name Andrei, attached to one of these boys, acknowledges the author’s indebtedness to the true history of Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered more than 50 people, mostly children.)
Outside Moscow in 1953, a vet endeavouring to
Child 44 By Tom Rob Smith Simon & Schuster, 473pp, $ 32.95
escape the authorities shelters in the shed of a past acquaintance. For permitting this to happen, a husband and wife are shot. When an underling, Vasili, motions to shoot the family’s two young girls as well, Leo Demidov clobbers him with his pistol. That action compromises his reputation as an officer who will do anything for the state, and from this point things go from bad to worse.
Leo is obliged to check on his wife, Raisa, whose name has been added to a list extracted from the vet just before he died, tortured by the state’s thugs. Quite early on readers develop a sense of Raisa’s independence and possible ability to defend herself with a carving knife.
In 1981, author Martin Cruz Smith turned his attention to the repressive Soviets but his principal series character, Arkady Renko, seemed emotionally complex. In contrast, Smith’s Demidov is a true believer. He knows too well what happens to people who make independent moral judgments, who think for themselves. Indeed, while the novel presents a chilling portrait of the Soviets under Stalin, it also reads as a moral warning to those anywhere, any time, who are trapped within large organisations, particularly as public functionaries, and who come to believe that law imposed on a population by its government must be enforced.
Raisa reminds Leo of a friend she had: ‘‘ You did meet Zoya. Perhaps she didn’t register, but then she wasn’t very important in party terms. She was given a 20- year sentence. They arrested her as she stepped out of a church, accusing her of anti- Stalinist prayers . . . prayers they hadn’t ever heard.’’ Raisa goes on, ‘‘ Even if you didn’t denounce her, how could you have helped? When the men who arrested her were men like you, dedicated, devoted servants of the state?’’
At the end of the book, matters are resolved to everybody’s satisfaction. This may be a let- down for readers hoping that a unique, imaginative conclusion might have been constructed. Still, these are the days of mass marketing and stifled imagination, so overproduced denouements are where we are at. That said, everything else about this novel, especially its sociological detail, makes for a fine and bone- chilling read. Painter and author Robin Wallace- Crabbe writes crime thrillers as Robert Wallace.