Child 44 is the first book by Tom Rob Smith, first published in 2008 by Simon & Schuster. The novel follows the journey of Leo Demidov as he investigates a series of gruesome murders in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. The story is based on the real-life killer Andrei Chikatilo, the Rostov Ripper or the Butcher of Rostov. Andrei Chikatilo was responsible for 52 murders which were mostly women and children. The book focuses on central themes of morality, love and loyalty to the state.
The book examines how Stalin’s vision of a perfect state directly contradicts the reality of the nightmarish conditions the men and women living under his rule endured. The novel highlights how any doubt as to the perfection of the state is swiftly met with cruel and brutal prejudice. Leo Demidov is one of these men who must interrogate, torture and execute those who pose a risk to Stalin’s vision. When faced with a series of inexplicable child murders, Leo is confronted by Stalin’s criminal system where crime cannot exist as a crime, it is a capitalist disease. He must confront the very institutions he swore to uphold as he races to solve the investigation against all odds.
The characters within the novel are some of the most fleshed-out and compelling characters I’ve ever had the joy of reading. Each character undergoes a metamorphosis as they have their lives cast into doubt, and they are forced to question their morals, values and even their own love for one another. Tom Rob Smith does an excellent job of creating complex, nuanced characters that the reader cannot get enough of. The journey both Leo Demidov and his wife Raisa go on is long and perilous, and Tom Rob Smith does an outstanding job of introducing twists and turns within the plot that the reader never expects. Upon second reading, it is even more impressive that all of these events are beautifully foreshadowed, showing Tom Rob Smith’s mastery of the craft. To say this book is a page-turner is an understatement; I found myself nervously waiting to sit down and read the book just to see what would happen to Leo and his wife.
The setting of the book, Stalin’s USSR, is so beautifully realised that you’d swear it’s a character on its own merit. The fear and paranoia of the time are interlaced in every sentence and word, making you question how anyone could ever live under such a regime. It feels like the characters are in danger, and there is never a reprieve from the relentless tension that drips from the pages as Leo And Raisa attempt to solve a crime the state refuses to believe and deems them, traitors.
The villain is equally as chilling. Where Tom Rob Smith could have opted for a crazed psychopath, he instead chooses a villain grounded in reality and whom he spends considerable time developing, even dedicating entire chapters to the man as he goes about butchering the children of Rostov. What makes him particularly disturbing is that the killer’s background is woven into his modus operandi; therefore, you can understand his motivations for killing the way he does. Additionally, the crimes of the killer pale in comparison to the harsh brutality of the Soviet Union and the untold millions of people that were tortured, killed and executed like those seen in the book. No one is safe.
A movie adaptation was released in 2015 with Ridley Scott as producer and Daniel Espinosa as director. The film had a star-studded cast of Tom Hardy as Leo Demidov, Noomi Rapace as Raise, and Gary Oldman as Timur Nesterov. Although the film shares the same name, unfortunately, it trips and stumbles as it attempts to condense the novel’s complex source material and nuanced characters into its 2hr 17 min runtime. The film chooses to ignore and skip critical points of character development within the novel and butchers its interpretation of the killer of the novel and instead opts to turn him into a crazed, mindless killer without any of the nuances from the novel.
I would rate Child 44 5 stars out of 5 and would highly recommend it to anyone who loves books or crime thrillers.