The dan­gers of think­ing for your­self

Robin Wal­lace- Crabbe

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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