Imagine a world, if you will, where crime does not exist. A startling proposition that seems outlandish, but our imaginations, of course, need not be bounded by the rules and restrictions imposed by realism. It would be a world, one might suppose, where equality reigned, where the thought of violence was so alien that it need not be practiced. People would smile more. They would cooperate more. And they would create a microcosm of peace that, town by town, country by country, could grow exponentially into worldwide tranquility.
Or maybe not. After all, Stalinist Russia operated under a policy, strictly enforced, that “there is no crime.” This was a Communist society, where social excesses were supposed to wither away and disappear and where the concept of violent death “had a natural drama which no doubt appealed to certain types of fanciful people.” So murders, no matter how horrific, were instead classified as accidents, if they were even investigated at all. The thought of any criminal disruption to the social order was even more suspicious than the general level of state-induced distrust that sent millions to the Gulag or to their deaths. There was no crime, perhaps, but only in the sense that the State held its customary monopoly in this aspect of life, as well.
This is the world depicted in Tom Rob Smith’s stunning debut thriller Child 44, a novel that manages the rare feat of improving after a second reading. The first time around, I admired Smith’s ability to shed his 28-year-old, London-based screenwriter self for a similarly aged protagonist obeying the statutes of the early 1950s version of the KGB, but spent more time in a state of surprise, caught up in the thriller elements. Rereading Child 44 brought out the novel’s meatier pleasures, its ability to create vivid characters in a world both alien to our own and chillingly recognizable.
Leo Demidov, a member of the MGB (as the State Security Force was called in 1953), follows orders. If his bosses tell him to visit the family of his colleague Fyodor Andreev and reassure him that his four-year-old son Arkady died of an accidental drowning and was not (as members of Fyodor’s family insist) raped and murdered with dirt shoved into his mouth, Leo does it. If the MGB insists that middle-aged Anatoly Brodsky is a traitor and a spy with information on other suspicious types that can only be gleaned by breaking bones and the administration of a crude truth serum called sodium camphor, Leo does those very things. So what if the truth is covered up, if confessions are false or the soothing words to a devastating family add further poison? This is the culture Leo lives in: Not only is there no crime, there is
Smith has us watch as the shaky ground upon which Leo’s livelihood is founded on gives way, one fault line at a time. The cases of Anatoly Brodsky and Arkady Andreev leave Leo with glimmers of dissatisfaction, as well as a palpable sense that perhaps the culture of distrust is hardly indicative of a superior society. Then things become a good deal less abstract: Leo’s wife, Raisa, an elementary school teacher in a state-sponsored Moscow institution, falls under suspicion of the MGB. Leo is placed in a dilemma no less heart-rending for being predictable: turn Raisa in and save his and his parents’ lives, or proclaim her innocence and face the worst? The answer seems obvious to the reader, but Smith shrouds Leo’s decision in considerable suspense by making the stakes so high as to be unbearable. Child 44 has no room for inconsequential choices because Stalinist Russia had no room for them either.
What happens next once again gives rise to themes beyond the ordinary purview of the police procedural. Leo is shipped off to a remote small town, demoted to the lowliest rank of police investigator. When another child is murdered, brutalized in the same fashion Arkady officially was not, Leo discerns a pattern not only of an active monster but of his own blindness, a willingness to compartmentalize and see only what he chooses that has persisted since childhood.
This lack of insight into his true self is made clearest in Leo’s interactions with Raisa, the perfect metaphor for the Soviet culture of fear and also for the faint hope of a greater redemption. What was once a marriage built on practicalities is irrevocably altered by their changed circumstances, and the portrait Smith paints is of a young woman, without the need to cling to civility for survival, bent on speaking the truth, no matter how vituperative her emotions become:
…what was she supposed to do? Pretend he’d risked everything for a perfect love? It wasn’t something she could just conjure on demand. Even if she’d wanted to pretend, she didn’t know how: she didn’t know what to say, what motions to go through. She could have been easier on him. In truth, some part of her must have relished his demotion. Not out of spite of vindictiveness but because she wanted him to know: this is how I feel every day. Powerless, scared — she’d wanted him to feel it, too. She’d wanted him to understand, to experience it for himself.
Smith also demonstrates that Leo’s powerlessness is his greatest weapon in catching a serial child murder cloistered by a society fixated on the nonexistence of crime. The details of the investigation itself may seem a tad haphazard to the sophisticated crime fiction reader, but they are rooted in an abject lack of communication between towns afflicted by similar crimes. Even if the penultimate twist is overly telegraphed by the prologue — a stark, harrowing section that could stand well on its own — it also allows Leo to reflect further on the connectedness of his childhood and adult worlds and how he missed key links: “Had he chosen this path, or had it chosen him? Had this been the reason he’d been drawn into the investigation when there was every reason to look the other way?”
Child 44 does not offer pat answers to this question, only suggestions that a society founded on secrecy and suspicion will thwart meaningful connections and support corroded ones. The success with which Leo’s dark tale is played out against this broad thematic canvas portends great things for Smith, as well as for Leo, left with the vision to discern everywhere the evidence of crimes both terrifyingly specific, and monstrously general.