I imagined that Child 44 would be another entertaining, yet forgetable murder mysteries. This was not case...not even close. This novel takes place in Stalinist Russia. Not a good place to be for anyone, even MGB agent Leo Demidov, our protagonist, who was once a poster boy for the state, but is, like most people at some point during this time, on thin ice.
A MGB colleague's son has just been found dead by a set of Moscow train tracks. To the passerby, it looks like an accident. The child's family claims it was murder. Leo is asked to "handle" this inconvenient situation by sweeping it under the rug to avoid any embarassment. He then is instructed to hunt down a suspected spy (for no reason other than he is a vet treating the pets of the US ambassador), and soon is faced with the reality that this man is not guilty of anything. In fact, most of the people he hunts down and often tortures and kills are innocent. His guilt and conscience soon begin to show through and he and his wife very quickly become an enemy of the state. All that has been given to him and his parents as a result of his status (good jobs, upscale living conditions, shopping priveledges) are taken away and all are threatened with imprisonment and death. He is demoted and shipped away to a small town to spend the rest of his supposed short life to work a menial job. There he discovers more deaths of children, similar to the one he brushed aside in Moscow. There are so many similarities, including bone-chilling details of rape, disembowelment, and mulch shoved in the mouths of the victims. He becomes driven, single-mindedly, to solve these murders, as his last act of retribution. He does solve these crimes, but even I of the sick and twisted mind failed to see the entire picture until the end.
Smith is an absolute master at time-warping you back to this era of hypocrisy, paranoia and witch-hunts. It is the second piece of media that I have come across in just a few weeks (the documentary "Poisoned By Polonium" was the first) that artfully portrays Russian leaders as no more than common thugs, not above strong-arming, lying and deceiving to achieve their goals. Smith also has done a brilliant job of developing the character of Leo. It is actually Disc 6 before we get to the business of hunting down the serial murderer, but you don't really mind the journey. And as for this piece of fiction on audiotape, it was a joy. The Russian accents of the performer were the cherry on top.