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Tom Rob Smith
Child 44
473 pages
Crime story set in 1953 amid a Stalinist-Orwellian nightmare. The politics are starkly Soviet, but the atmosphere is old-school Russian. How Russian? Russian enough for an Andrei, an Arkady and an Anatoly all turn up cryptically in the book’s early stages.

Andrei appears during the book’s 1933 prologue, a vignette about the terrible disappearance of a young boy during a famine. Then 20 years later, with no explanation for such leapfrogging, Mr. Smith tells the story of another boy’s bleak fate. That victim is Arkady. And while Arkady turns up dead on Moscow railroad tracks, an adult fugitive named Anatoly happens to be suspected of other kinds of misdeeds. Anatoly is accused of spying, and he is on the run from the State Security force, the M.G.B.

Thriller conventions being what they are, this opening material amounts to mere vamping. Nobody whose name starts with an A will turn out to be this book’s central character. Andrei, Arkady and Anatoly merely lead the reader to Leo Stepanovich Demidov, an M.G.B. officer with relentless ambition and an unquestioning nature. Leo is busy pursuing Anatoly when he is annoyingly sidetracked by a family matter. He is begged by Fyodor, Arkady’s father, to find out how Arkady went astray.

Here comes Mr. Smith’s most marketably perverse angle: It is not morally possible for Leo to contemplate such a question. As a loyal Soviet ideologue, he must believe that violent crime is a function of capitalist decadence. In a worker’s paradise only political-thought crimes matter. So unguarded children have nothing to fear. And Arkady’s story must be forgotten.

Here are some pro forma book-group discussion questions about “Child 44,” since it is looking like this summer’s most hotly promoted thriller: Will Leo question his blind loyalty to Stalinist Russia? Will he decide that crime can happen anywhere because it is part of human nature? Will his life be at risk when he begins to question authority? Will his indifferent marriage to Raisa be strengthened or weakened as Leo becomes his own man? Will there be anything sexy about Raisa’s realization that she is not married to a ruthless automaton?

Will thugs threaten to rape Raisa at any point in this story? Will “Child 44” escalate into action sequences and violence? Will we find out why one of the book’s characters never goes anywhere without a serrated knife, which is said to be good for cutting tough salami? And will Leo turn out to have a big, murky secret lodged somewhere in his past?

Before answering this last question, consider Mr. Smith’s explicit gratitude to Robert Towne, who wrote the film “Chinatown.” Under Mr. Towne’s influence “Child 44” takes on a “Chinatown” whiff of long-buried, psychologically devastating menace.

Here’s a good moment to note that Mr. Smith originally conceived of “Child 44” as a movie. And he had based it loosely on the real, gruesome Russian story of a man nicknamed the Rostov Ripper. The screenplay may well have been this author’s best format for this story, since Mr. Smith is very handy with small, nifty plot tricks but is also very long-winded when summoning Stalin-era atmospherics.

Only when the Stalinism yields a clever jolt — as, for instance, the sight of a telephone in somebody’s apartment revealing that person to be working for the state, since a telephone is such a rare and exotic perk — does Mr. Smith’s slightly ponderous style truly serve his high-voltage story.

As for its characters’ various relationships, the one between Leo and Raisa is by far the most interesting. Leo’s dealings with co-workers are rendered almost cartoonishly simple. (It’s not clear why the book’s one-note villain hates him.) And his love for his parents, while unexpectedly poignant, remains essentially unchanged.

But Leo and Raisa go through a phase of mutual mistrust, during which Leo is asked to spy on his wife and treat her as a possible enemy of the state. Here is where Richard Price, who is reportedly writing the screenplay for “Child 44,” will come in handy: The book delivers Hitchcockian moments like Leo’s secretly trying to track his wife — and, he thinks, her lover — through a crowded train station. The bold dynamics of the sequence are strong, but its turbulent inner workings are even better.

Sooner or later, though, Mr. Smith must reveal what has been at the heart of all the life-changing events in this story. And its denouement feels surprisingly phony. Motivation counts for nothing among the book’s characters; it’s just an excuse for the author to put them through the elaborate paces of a far-flung chase through Martin Cruz Smith country. This book’s version of the Rostov Ripper is a guy with ugly personal quirks, but very little imagination.

If there’s one single development in “Child 44” that has the most lingering effect, it is Leo’s choice at the end of the story. What will he do next? He needs a new career. Suffice it to say that Stalin has died during the course of the story, that Leo has traveled far and wide, that Moscow now looks like a good home base, and that it will be needing a batch of homicide cops, now that homicide officially exists. So Leo Demidov pulls what fans of this genre (and of the author Michael Connelly) will recognize as a Harry Bosch. Expect to see him again, jaded yet indefatigable, figuring out what evil lurks in the dark heart of his chosen city.

Starts of rather disturbing, but fizzles out into a run-of-the-mill thriller out the end with a rather far-fetched plot twist to tie it altogether

Worth a read.
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