The first chapter starts with a pair of starving children in a Russian village in the 1930s, hunting a scrawny, skeletal cat, possibly the last surviving creature on four legs in the region. Catching it may be life or death for them, and I was hooked right from the start. Child 44 is a brutal book, despite a relative lack of gore. It's actually not the rampant starvation and devastation of World War II framing the hard early lives of the characters that make the book most brutal, nor is it the child serial killer who is the central MacGuffin of the book. It's the pervasive, arbitrary, boot-in-the-face totalitarianism of the Soviet police state that makes every single encounter a life-or-death exercise in paranoia.
After the prologue, Child 44 jumps ahead to the early 1950s, while Stalin's pogroms are still machine-gunning away. The protagonist is Leo Demidov, a war hero and State Security officer. At the beginning of the book, his life is about as cushy as life can get for anyone in the USSR who isn't a high-ranking Communist Party member: he has power, authority, a beautiful wife, a nice apartment, and he's been able to make sure his parents are comfortable.
When the son of one of his coworkers is killed, Leo is told that the boy was killed by a train. It was an accident. He will inform the boy's family that it was an accident. The boy was killed by a train. The boy was emphatically not murdered, not found naked with his mouth stuffed with dirt, and not seen being led from the train tracks by a strange man. This is the state's official line, and therefore it is what Leo is to believe.
When more children are found murdered, the state says they are all separate, unrelated incidents. Leo, who has been a true supporter of the state his entire life, starts to find the cognitive dissonance too much to bear. Leo also has a problem saying things he knows to be untrue, like when his loyalty is tested when he is told his wife is a foreign agent and must be denounced.
Pretty quickly, Leo's comfortable life goes to hell, and he is given a humiliating demotion. He and his wife are spared from the gulags only by the fortuitous death of Stalin. But even in a nowhere town in the Urals, Leo finds that the child-killer is leaving corpses, all over the country.
Child 44 was a gritty, thrilling story, as much about the horror of living in a police state where reality is what the state says it is and everyone measures what they will say and do according to what they think will keep them alive, never according to what might happen to be the truth, as it is about a serial killer preying on children in Stalin's Russia. Leo is an interesting protagonist: not precisely a "good" man but neither is he an evil one. He's been willing to work within the system his entire life, until the system turns against him, and then he has a sort of awakening of the conscience.
Unfortunately, it's at this point where I felt the story veered a bit away from its solid beginnings. Having stacked the deck so thoroughly against Leo and made it clear just how overwhelmingly powerful the government is and how no one can be trusted, giving Leo the ability to continue what amounts to an independent investigation without being caught requires one lucky break after another, and the lucky breaks just keep piling up. People with no reason to trust him or help him do, his wife who hates him suddenly becomes his most loyal ally, and he slips out of one trap after another. No single escape was unbelievable, but by the end of the book I was thinking Leo Demidov is one lucky Russian SOB. On top of this were piled some equally fantastic coincidences that constituted the surprise twists.
It was still a thrilling story with very interesting characters in what felt like a historically accurate setting, but I had to knock it down to 4 stars because of how much bending and stretching the plot had to do to allow an unlikely maverick protagonist to survive in the USSR. That said, I recommend it to anyone who likes mystery/thrillers and finds the premise interesting. This is the first book in a trilogy, and I'll certainly check out the next two books.
I listened to the audiobook version, and I'm of two minds about the narration. The narrator was very good and gave each character a believable Russian accent. Therein lies the problem: these are Russian characters speaking Russian, so obviously they don't have accents. But this reading did bring to life the plodding, implacable mood of the setting and the Russians who inhabit it. I suspect to a Russian speaker it would be a different experience, and reading the book (unless you mentally give Russian characters Russian accents as you read) would also give it a different atmosphere.
A very original story line, main character and plot. Very compelling. I was moved thoroughly entertained. It gave what appears to be a very likely feel for Stalinist's Soviet Union - and you'll be amazed that you're glad to have visited such a place!
The Narrator was excellent, the story was excellent, it gripped me from the first minutes right till the last. I downloaded the sequel right away and was so glad not to have to say goodbye to Leo and Rieesa. I don't like description and there was barely a wasted word in this novel. Amazing story and a lesson in what Russia was like when Stalin ruled. Would highly recommend.
I am a child of the 50's, love kids, animals, plants. I adopted a Sulphur mustang mare (desendant of the warhorses of the Conquistadors).
I would recommend this book, and I would also encourage the listener to stay with it. It seemed like the author took a long time to begin to tie the story elements together, and I almost quit listening. By about a third of the way into the book I was hooked. I liked the character development, and the development of hope through relationship with people.
I liked both Leo and Raisa, but I have to admit I liked her more.
I thought he did accents well...
The moment before they came to the village when Raisa encouraged Leo to trust the villagers moved me. Even though this is a fictional series, I believe there are many times that people are heroic through standing up to fear, and this moment in the book reminds the read of humanity in its finer moments. Later, Leo shows he's taken this lesson to heart when he refuses to harm the truck driver.
I found I like the book so well I'm downloading the next book in the series, instead of my planned next book...
GREAT narration, and frankly, a GREAT story. This series gets BETTER with each book. I LOVE this series. It is not a
I've been to Russia, his accents and gender changes are AWESOME! He really makes listening to this series better than reading it.
I purchased this book on a whim and I am so glad I did! The narrator does a great job of putting you right there in the story. Although I love historical novels, this is not the sort I would usually listen to. I would highly recommend this one. I have already purchased Tom Rob Smith's two other novels on Audible!
Wonderfully written, ESPECIALLY if you like detailed accounting of young child murders! I gave it 5 stars because nobody reads the 1 star reviews. Don't buy it, it'll make you sick. Not really sure how someoone could make this stuff up?!
Yes. It was a fascinating book, interesting characters, intricate plot, and layers of story.
Yes, it did. The story kept unfolding new twists. Lots of tense action.
Good voice; nice presentation.
Yes, I really didn't want to stop. Couldn't do it, had to sleep, etc. Read it in 3 sittings, though.
Definitely an adult book. Mature subject matter. Violence. Adult themes.
One of the top 10 books I've read. Once I'd made it through the first chapter, which I found particularly troubling, I couldn't put it down. There are so many twists and turns, I would hold my breath in anticipation of the next surprising chapter.
I can't think of any other book I've read or listened to that comes close to this one. It was disturbingly addictive.
Without giving anything away, I'd have to say it was the moment that Leo and his wife really understood each other.
Prepare yourself for a nightmarish, fascinating tale of horror, fear, love and life in Stalin's Russia.
Dennis Boutsikaris's narration was near perfection.
Child 44 is probably one of the best stories I've read/heard in a long time. The characters and setting were deep and rich. Smith draws you into their lives, the paranoia, despair, and frustration of living and working in Stalin's Soviet Union. Although the setting and characters are the strength of the story, Smith doesn't use them as a crutch. The plot and story telling is well done and make it worth it. Definitely a must listen! I plan to get the rest of Smith's works.