Title: Child 44
Author: Tom Rob Smith
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: 2008
I’ve always liked serial-killer books and movies. Both fictional and non-fictional. But it wasn’t until after I’d finished Child 44 that I realized it was based on the life of probably the most prolific serial-killer in the Soviet Union, Andrei Chikatilo, the Butcher of Rostov. He claimed to have committed more than 56 murders and was convicted of 52 i 1992. The fictional version of Chikatilo is just as active, but much earlier.
“The survival of their political system justified anything. The promise of a golden age where none of this brutality would exist, where everything would be in plenty and poverty would be a memory, justified anything.”
Child 44 takes place in Stalin’s Soviet Union where everyone’s a suspect of anti-state activities or thoughts and being arrested is basically a gulag or death sentence as the state is infallible and thus never arrests innocent people. The general population is poor and lives in constant fear of the state and its agents. One of these agents is Leo Demidov, security officer with the MGB. He and his family enjoy small luxuries like running water and fruit. So what do you do when you begin to suspect that a serial-killer is on the loose in a country where there are no unsolved crimes, and where suggesting so could land you and your family in the gulags for 25 years? Do you risk becoming an enemy of the state to save a bunch of strangers? Well I’m not saying. You’ll have to read the book for yourself. And there are definitely worse things you could be reading.
Even if you don’t like gruesome serial-killers, this book is worth reading for the portrayal of life in the USSR in the 1950’s. It’s bleak, unsettling – or downright scary – and very engaging. Sure, I don’t know enough to completely evaluate the accuracy of the historical or societal aspects of the book. But I’m not sure it matters. Maybe it wasn’t such a horrible place to live and maybe people didn’t get arrested or sent away at the drop of a hat. While a pretty big deal historically and from a humanitarian point of view, I don’t think it matters a whole lot whether or not these things are accurate, (I think they are, but maybe I’m just falling for some Western propaganda here), because it makes for one hell of a darkly atmospheric setting and helps propel the action along very nicely. Even without a serial-killer, this would have been an interesting read. The cruel inner workings of the agency and the daily lives of the citizens are what made me gobble up Child 44. Leo’s struggle within the system is a gripping story in itself and it made me want to learn even more about this place and time. Thank god the author left a list of inspirational reading at the end!
“Trust but check. Check on those we trust.”
It’s not that I mind the serial-killer story at all. I just wasn’t too excited by it and I almost got annoyed with those convenient thriller coincidences. I didn’t find him so scary – I’m not very squeamish with these things – though I’m sure a lot of people would. And it wasn’t all that hard to figure out the whodunnit. Another small complaint would be that the characters are a bit thin. There’s some development, but not a lot and little background information. Had there been more characters, they probably would have been difficult to tell apart. But there aren’t . The dialogue too is sparse and often uninteresting. But let’s be honest, Child 44 never pretended to be high art and that’s just fine. And either way, the story is so fast-paced that you hardly have time to notice or mind.