In the middle of the secretive world of Stalin-era Russia lies a set of murders that keep getting written off as accidents. After all, there is no crime in Communist Russia--that's a capitalist problem.
Leo Demidov is a man who believes in the actions of the state. It's served him well, and he and his family are secure within the system. Are there problems? Maybe, but those who think too hard about them end up at the wrong end of the interrogation room.
Before he knows it, Leo is just such a man. He's angered a person below him, and as he well knows, sometimes the only way up is to ruin those who control you. On the run, Leo is mixed into a strange set of murders.
The only way to clear himself seems to be to solve the crime. But how can he do that with no police help and with an entire system trying to kill him?
That's the fun of Child 44, which stunningly is the first novel of writer Smith. This novel reads like it was in the careful hands of a veteran, not someone who was forming his first long work. We get a great set up that seems unrelated but you know will go somewhere, then an introduction to the main players in the drama. The plot takes twists and turns all over the place, but never feels like it's bogging down or adding scenes just to pad page count. By the climax, everything fits together, and the reader is not left feeling like there are any loose ends.
It's so tightly woven, and done in a historical context, to boot. Smith made a brilliant choice in opting to use Stalanist Russia as a place setting for a noir book. The perpetual suspicion, betrayals, murders, and conspiracies not only work within the context of the genre, but really did happen! I can't speak for the historical accuracy of the novel, but from what I know of the time period, it seems right to me.
About the only thing the book lacks to be a true noir tale is a faithless woman. Leo's wife is the main female character, and her only perceived faithlessness is disagreement with the way the government operated. For Leo, however, that's almost enough, given his devotion to the cause.
I absolutely love the way that Smith uses his setting to drive the book. Obstacles don't have to be made up to thwart Leo--Russia's bureaucracy does it naturally. The idea of lying or moving blame is so second nature to everyone in the novel that Smith can do whatever he likes with the characters and it is completely believable in context. A bit part of what makes this book so good is Smith's manipulation of circumstances.
Despite moving at a rapid pace, Smith makes sure you understand the settings he moves Leo and the other characters through. You know what it's like to live on a rail line in Russia or to have better accommodations because of State connections. We even see the horrible side of things, as the Soviet use of torture is not avoided or sidestepped. (Let this be a notice to the more squeamish among you.)
Though the murder mystery and suspense of Leo's flight are the biggest parts of the book, there are other concepts as well. Leo sees first-hand the way that the system he's trusted for so long can betray the very people it's meant to protect. By the end of the book, Leo understands that so much of his life, from the personal to the professional, is a lie. But in order to survive (another key theme), he has to accept this dualism. To a certain degree, don't we all?
Layered and intricate, Child 44 is one of the best books I've read. If you like historical fiction, mysteries, or suspense, you owe it to yourself to check it out. You'll be glad you did.