The setting is 1950s Russia, under the rule of Stalin. Leo Demidov - an officer of the MGB, State Security - is forced to tell two grieving parents that their beloved son was not murdered. His death was an accident. In actuality, Leo has stumbled upon a series of grisly murders that have been covered up by the State. Stalin has proclaimed Russia to be the perfect society, thanks to Communism - in a perfect society, crime cannot exist and therefore these murders are not linked, are rather the work of individuals acting against the State.
When Leo is disgraced and sent into exile with his wife, Raisa, he realises that he must redeem his behaviour in helping to cover up this crime by finding the killer. But any wrong move will see him executed for standing up against the mighty state of Russia...
Child 44 is truly a tale of two halves. The first part of the book, from the building of a tense and claustrophobic atmosphere of fear and paranoia to the description of this faceless killer and the corpses he leaves behind him, is glittering brilliance. At times I struggled to turn each page, knowing that, at any point, Leo could be denounced as a traitor to Russia and executed. The relationship between Leo and Raisa is strained and believable.
It was a stroke of genius setting the novel in such a shocking arena: a time when Stalin's brutal regime was at its height. Anyone who spoke out against the rules would vanish into labour camps - or vanish altogether. Torture to gain confessions was rife - and our hero, Leo, is a part of this institution. It would have been very easy to hate Leo - to hate what he stands for, and the fact that he closes his eyes to the situations around him. But you are invited to realise that Leo is very much a product of the State that defines him - his fear for his parents and Raisa, in the event that he is brought in for questioning, showcases the horribly difficult dilemmas faced by those who suffered under Stalin.
Smith's writing is meticulously researched - the downright frightening world of Stalin is captured perfectly, from the queues for food to the approved books that people are permitted to read. It is a fantastic backdrop for a grisly serial killer case, and adds real flavour and unique depth to this tale.
For a debut novel, the prose is assured and very capable, sweeping the reader into the cold east and a dark story of murder.
So... what is wrong with Child 44? The ending, I'm afraid. Once Leo and Raisa are on the run, and pulling together to attempt to find the killer, the novel loses some of its power and punch. I found myself incredulous about some of the coincidences, and everything was tied off a little too neatly. This is a shame, because, up until the last few chapters, this was one of my top books of 2010.
Frankly, I'm astonished at the fact that this is Smith's debut - Child 44 could have easily come from the pen of one of the genre greats, with the level of tension and the feeling of claustrophobia. I am very excited to see what he produces next.