Book Recommendation: “Child 44”

30 Mar

Child 44:
by Tom Rob Smith

““—Isn’t this how it starts? You have a cause you believe in, a cause worth dying for. Soon, it’s a cause worth killing for. Soon, it’s a cause worth killing innocent people for.” 


The story is spread over decades, trailing from the horrors of Nazi Germany and the European famines to the devastation of Lenin and Stalin’s Soviet Russia. Russia is about to realize that their utopia might not be so perfect after all as children begin to die at the hands of a strange, faceless monster.  

MGB (the Soviet Intelligence Agency) has learned that one of its Moscow officers is claiming his little son has been murdered. Terrified that such claims would undermine the peace and “perfection” of the socialist society, sparking fear and ultimately rebellion in the minds of the locals, the MGB reminds the father that Russia has no crime.  Forcing him to retract his claims,  the story is written off as nothing more than a tragic accident.

But one of the MGB officials, Leo Demidov, becomes increasingly suspicious. What about the other children found, one in this little town, another in that large city, all dead and mutilated in identical fashions? Where they too simply accidents?  Demidov becomes convinced that the accidents are linked, slowly connecting them until he reaches Child 44.  Desperate to keep his investigation a secret from the MGB, and facing the threat of prison, torture, or worse should he be discovered, Demidov frantically races against the clock to catch the murderer before another innocent life is lost.  He can trust no one; loyalty means nothing when a whispered word to an MGB ear will perhaps provide food for your family for a week. Inch by inch, he edge closer to discovering the truth of the one question he wants answered, “Why?”‘


Child 44 reads like one of the great Dystopian novels, easy making its way up in my esteem to levels held by Orwell’s 1984 and Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. However, Smith’s novel stands out in that it gives you a glimpse into the mind of those who believe in Big Brother.  Most Dystopian novels are set from the views of those who know something is wrong, who realize that the ideology is fundamentally flawed. 

Leo is not that character, at least in the beginning. He’s bought the party handbook line, hook, and sinker; he not only believes it, he gladly enforces it. A ranking officer who has arrested, interrogated, and taken down the confessions of thousands of “traitors” to the Socialist cause, Leo is Big Brother.  Thus the first half of the novel gives you a picture into the mind of a man who actually believes the lies the government is telling him; Smith does a marvelous job of explaining why these people buy into the fairy-tale and how they rationalize everything in their minds.  It’s something I’ve never really seen before, and I loved it.
Finally, Leo begins to realize that the System has failed, that the utopia he believed in and fought for doesn’t exist. That in this society, nothing is reliable, no one is loyal, and everything he has believed in is a lie. Page by page, Leo works through his sudden enlightenment, quickly discovering that not only is it all part of a broken program, but that there is no way to fight back.  How can you fight back when you can’t even trust your closest friends?  There is no Enjolras and his Cafe Ames in this story – the government would never let such a thing exist. And yet, Leo fights back. Struggling in the name of justice and in the memory of slaughtered children to convince someone, anyone, that murder is not such a distant nightmare after all.
As important as Leo’s storyline is, one of the things that interested me about the novel was that it was also the story of many other people as well.  You got a glimpse into all the different players, the villains and heroes, victims and con artists, prostitutes and warriors. It shows what their lives were like, the fates of all those who were different. Different religion, different genders, different sexual preferences, different ideals, different backgrounds, different circumstances. When everything is based upon pure equality and sameness, difference is not wanted. Yet, everyone is different. Not even party members and enforcers are free from the little things that set individuals apart. And that scares them. Leaving the people terrified of the neighbors, family, and even they themselves.  
It’s a dark and gloomy world, and Smith carefully portrays the harshness that generation faced in Russia.  It is so powerful precisely because it is so real. This is not some futuristic novel, telling tales of what might be. This is a story of the past, a warning of what once was and what might happen again.  
It’s also a spine-tingling good mystery 🙂

“For decades, no one had taken action according to what they believed was right or wrong, but by what they thought would please their Leader.”


(1) “Child 44” *
(2) “The Secret Speech” 
(3) “Agent 6”

* Personal Favorite


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