>Book Review: Child-44

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My father has always hounded me as to why I do not use the library more often, check out books, then return them when I finish reading them. Would you return a puppy to the animal shelter after playing with it for a while? Do you drop your friendships after three or four weeks?

When I read a good book, I form a relationship with the author, the characters the author develops. I wonder about motivations, what events led them to act out their behaviors; I wonder how the story will play itself out. Good authors conduct copious amounts of research in order to create a realistic atmosphere and characters and personalities.

Child 44 is not an average murder mystery. While Mr. Smith’s first novel, his story is extremely well-crafted, thought-out, and researched. Imagine a country where patriotism controls life status, determines how one lives, where one lives, the employment one has. Patriotism permeates deeply, an undying devotion to the State, even when the truth contradicts the State. In a country that acknowledges no crime, what happens when crime is committed?

Smith explores the State, Soviet Russia, circa 1953. Stalin runs the State, keeping all citizens in a state of fear. Neighbors watch neighbors, strangers watch strangers, people are punished for knowing nothing, and for knowing too much. The reward system is based on not being punished too severely.

Mr. Smith’s attention to the details of Soviet life is so compelling; who can an individual trust when the State has people who encourage citizens to whisper complaints and then arrests them as Western spies? Who can one trust when speaking a lie about a person can have the accused sent to a gulag (prison) in Siberia? No one lies to the State, so what reason would the State have to challenge a person’s veracity, particularly when the accused could be a Cold War spy for the West?

All of these details play themselves out with Mr. Smith’s novel, in cold, cruel images. Murders of dozens of children across Soviet Russia bring out the sordid, demeaning, and psychologically stifling life wrapped around each citizen. Our protagonist, Leo, and his wife, Raisa struggle against the Soviet machine and political apparatus to track down the killer of children in the face of their own death sentence, a death sentence handed down as they refused to recognize that many of these deaths had previously been considered “solved.” Challenging these previous deaths constitute calling the State a liar, challenging the State is tantamount to being a traitor, and traitors are shot on sight.

As Leo and his wife track the killer, they travel much of western Russia. We follow their progress from industrial towns to small villages. History of Russia, of these towns, and of these people unfolds as Leo enlists the help of people. A map at the beginning of the novel assists in helping locate places unfamiliar to the reader.

Developing a relationship with Mr. Smith’s novel would be well-worth the time investment.

Now available in paperback.

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