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Since Maria had decided to die, her cat would have to fend for itself. She'd already cared for it far beyond the point where keeping a pet made any sense. Rats and mice had long since been trapped and eaten by the villagers. Domestic animals had disappeared shortly after that. All except for one, this cat, her companion which she'd kept hidden. Why hadn't she killed it? She needed something to live for; something to protect and love - something to survive for. She'd made a promise to continue feeding it up until the day she could no longer feed herself. That day was today. She'd already cut her leather boots into thin strips, boiled them with nettles and beetroot seeds. She'd already dug for earthworms, sucked on bark. This morning in a feverish delirium she'd gnawed the leg of her kitchen stool, chewed and chewed until there were splinters jutting out of her gums. Upon seeing her the cat had run away, hiding under the bed, refusing to show itself even as she'd knelt down, calling its name, trying to coax it out. That had been the moment Maria decided to die, with nothing to eat and nothing to love. [opening pages]
Time and place: Ukraine, Village of Chervoy, 25 January 1933. Starving villagers will eat anything they can find: rats, mice, cats, even insects. The search for food is endless as the winter drags on and the villagers die of starvation. The run-away cat is spotted and two boys are dispatched with string and a small bit of bone for bait to catch the animal for food for the family. Only one boy returns from the hunt. The older boy Pavel has disappeared and is assumed captured for food himself. The hunter has become the hunted. His mother, Oksana, is devastated and cries out with grief. "Some of the neighbors appeared at their doors. They listened to her cries. But there was nothing unusual about this kind of grief, and people did not watch for long." (p. 16)
Now the action shifts to The USSR twenty years later. Stalin's state is perfect by definition. In a perfect state there can be no crime. That's the official line. Crime is to be found in the corrupt capitalistic West, but not in the state controlled utopia where the only crime is one of acting against the perfection of the state. A decorated war hero, Leo Demidov, has risen to a fairly high position in the KGB because of his devotion to the State and his loyalty and obedience to his superiors. He is a Security Ministry Officer, a determined, charming anti-hero of sorts ruthlessly efficient in his work. We see him first on the job dispatched to a village to curtail rumors of a murder, to convince the parents of the dead child that the tragedy of their son's death is an accident and not a murder. After all, there are no murders in the perfect state, and the officers of the Security Ministry have real work to do in finding enemies of the State.
The novel is based partially on the case of a real serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, who killed dozens in the Soviet Union in the eighties. Smith has changed the time to the cold war 1950s and in doing so produces a sub-text of the struggle for fact against fiction in a tyrannical regime. Finally Leo will learn that "there is nothing more stubborn than a fact." Paranoia is everywhere. Once you were on a list you were likely to be arrested; once arrested assumed to be guilty; once pronounced guilty you disappeared. "In Stalinist Russia, there was this danger everywhere, all the time—whether it was getting into bed, whether it was talking in front of your children, whether it was talking so that your neighbors could hear through the walls. In most serial-killer stories, the killer is the source of threat, the danger, whereas in this story the source of threat is the state." [Smith interview: New York Books]
Child 44 is set in the last days of Stalin's Russia in the 1950s and beyond. Secret police officer Leo has his loyalty tested when a veterinarian he knows to be innocent is killed for being a spy. The evidence against the man is that he treated an American diplomat's pet. When the murdered vet is reported to have uttered Leo's wife's name under interrogation, Leo is challenged to investigate his own wife. In this world where every character's motives can be questioned and double-crossing is normal, Leo is suddenly on a course where nothing is quite what it seems. Leo has been able for some time to convince himself that what he does is justified on utilitarian grounds; he follows orders for the greater good of the State. He has been able to lie to himself, to believe that what he is doing is justified. He has been able to find a beautiful woman as his wife because of his position in the secret police. His position has provided his parents with a good apartment and his father with a good supervisory job.
But suddenly he is double-crossed. He and his wife, Raisa, are sent to a small town outside of Moscow, where he will suddenly be at the bottom of the local militia. There he discovers another murder like the one he covered up in Moscow. Convinced that there is a serial killer killing children across the country he faces up to the challenge of doing real police work. Leo is determined, with the help of his wife, to catch a serial child killer in a state which denies the existence of murder and, soon enough, the future of Leo, his wife and his family are in doubt.
Child 44 is Smith's first novel. And a quite wonderful achievement it is. It is well-written, fast-paced, and much more than just a mystery novel. The prose is finely crafted, the story believable, the plot smoothly constructed, the characters interesting, and the denouement is fascinating. In an interview Smith states, Leo is "fundamentally a good person in bad times." "Stalin's view was that 'if we arrest ten people and only one of them is guilty then that's fine'. So he's placed in these impossible dilemmas and creates a system of denial to explain what he's doing." The sense of not knowing who to trust is the thriller's ace card, with Smith saying: "People have spent their suspicion on each other rather than use it to find the killer." [from Ralph Baxter of Publishing News]
Throughout the novel the tension between the official line of the State and the facts of the story is heightened. Leo will be forced to test his beliefs about the State, about his wife, about his principles against fact. Just as the hunter became the hunted in the first chapter of the book, the hunter becomes the hunted in the last portion of the novel, as Leo and Raisa struggle to find the child serial killer and to survive. The movie rights have been sold and it should be fairly easy to translate the novel to the screen given that Smith's prior work has been as a writer for television and screen.
An excellent novel indeed!
© 2008 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Religious Studies at Vancouver Island University.