Horrifying on multiple levels, Child 44 is a standout thriller.
In the so-called perfect Stalinist state, crime doesn't exist. To admit that it exists is almost an act of treason.
So when a member of the MGB claims that his child Arkady has been murdered, Leo Demidov is told to quiet the family. He does this and more, even threatening eye-witnesses.
He never examines the body of Arkady as the family asks. None of this is unusual. MGB do not normally detect violent crime. That task belongs to a much lower class, the militia.
Soon, however, new circumstances come to light. Leo Demidov's communist beliefs are shaken to the core when he sees an innocent man tortured.
He also learns that wife, Raisa, is a stranger. She married him because she feared turning his marriage proposal down.
He was an agent of the state and she was keen on surviving. Years ago she had watched the Soviets destroy her town and all of her relatives, including her parents, for political purposes.
In Stalinist Russia, agents could be promoted one afternoon and denounced the next. When someone denounces Leo and Raisa, they barely escape with their lives. Demoted to a mill town, Leo and Raisa must start life anew.
Leo is demoted to the lowest rank in the militia, the agency responsible for handling violent crime. Recently, two children have been murdered in the woods near the railroad tracks and there may be more.
Smith has set up the perfect conundrum for his hero to face. A disgraced MGB officer can do little to investigate the murders without risking his life. Leo Demidov must decide if justice is more important than survival.
Plenty of riveting twists and turns, betrayals, repressed memories, mind games, and nail-biting escapes make this a first-rate thriller. Unsurprisingly, this novel has been turned into a 2015 feature film.
Tom Rob Smith followed Child 44 with two other novels, The Secret Speech and Agent 6.