Reading Child 44 by Tom Rom Smith is almost like reading Kafka’s The Trial*. The whole judicial apparatus was alien to me. While I could kind of understand the logic (such as it was) behind it all, I found the process of accusation, arrest, confession, trial, and punishment to be surreal and frightening. When I picked this book up, I knew there was going to be a political element. How can you write a book set in Russia in 1953 and not address the political element? When I picked it up, I was expecting a book predominately about the mystery. But after finishing it, I think this book is really more about the Soviet criminal and judicial system than it was about the mystery.
The murders at the center of the mystery are based in part on some real serial murders, like the case of the Rostov Ripper, Andrei Chikatilo. Some of the murderer’s pathology is also based on Chikatilo. But I have to agree with some of the negative criticism I read when this book first came out. The end, at least the resolution of the murders, is a little weak. The protagonist, Leo Demidov, and some of the minor characters work out some of the pathology to explain the murderer’s motives and methods but at the end it seemed like Smith abandoned some really plausible and interesting psychology in order to shock his readers. As I read parts of the end, where the killer explains his behavior, I found myself thinking, What?! Hang on a minute. Some of it just didn’t compute.
In spite of this, I would still recommend this book to mystery readers who are okay with violence above the cozy mystery-level. (Writing that reminds me of some times when I was doing reader’s advisory and people would ask for mystery recommendations. I would always had to ask what their capacity for violence was. Could they read James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell? Or did they prefer Sharyn McCrumb and Diane Mott Davidson?) At any rate, this book is very dark and very grim. But I would recommend this book because of the political element. At first, I was a little skeptical of how Smith described how things were done. It all seemed very extreme. I had heard of how officials and managers would manipulate statistics to make it look like things were better and more productive than they really were. But I was surprised to learn that murders were either not investigated, or they were pinned on likely suspects that were outside of Soviet society for one reason or another, i.e. the insane, political criminals, homosexuals, etc. So, our hero Leo, has to overcome his faith in the system and then fight just about everyone he comes across in order to find the killer.
Another hard thing to come to grips with was the fact that, once someone was denounced, they were presumed guilty. Plus, no one tried very hard to clear them if they really were innocent. Apparently, the defense had to use the same witnesses as the prosecution. Even a couple of hundred pages into the book, I was still having a hard time accepting all this, probably because 1) I grew up in America as an American citizen and 2) when I was born, the Cold War was pretty much over and by the time I was aware of what was going on in the rest of the world, it was all over. So I have always grown up with the idea that you’re innocent until proven guilty and without being told how bad the Societ Union and Soviet Communism was. At the end of the book, Smith gives a little summary of the books that he read as research, books by Russians like Solzhenitsyn** or by scholars of Russian and Soviet history.
In the final analysis, I would ding this book a couple of points for the killer’s pathology, but I would award major points for its characters, the plot, the accuracy of the historical setting, how the author builds and builds the tension, and for its treatment of the political element. I liked this book so much that I read it in less than two days.
* Weirdly, when you type The Trial into Barnes and Noble’s web site, Kafka’s novel comes up tenth. Come on people, read your surrealists!
** No matter how many times I reference this guy, I can never remember how to spell his name.