Child 44

Leo Stepanovich Demidov, the hero of Tom Rob Smith’s sensational debut thriller, Child 44, seems to have stepped out of the pages of a classic by Hammett or Chandler. He’s a rugged WWII veteran, a natural athlete capable of chasing down a fugitive with an hour’s head start across a snowy landscape. He has secrets (mostly of the family variety, and mostly sublimated) as well as vices (a meth habit he acquired during the war). And he’s got a femme at home who could very well prove to be fatale: his wife, Raisa, a schoolteacher who he suspects may be working on more than just lesson plans with one of her colleagues. He’s also developing an unwelcome virtue — a sense of conscience — as he stumbles on a series of gruesome murders of young children that local authorities seem incapable of solving on their own.

Smith cleverly raises the stakes by setting his story in the 1950s and making Leo a member of the MGB, the Soviet Union’s dreaded secret police. In that time and place, the independent streak that runs through every hard-boiled hero worth an egg timer proves a very dangerous quality indeed. While Leo’s job gives him some latitude to pursue his investigation, there are serious consequences to challenging the official party line. After all, this is the Communist Party line. And with a government that will not admit error, it’s foolhardy to suggest that the deaths are the work of a single madman, and not the random perps who have already been charged, convicted, and executed by the ever-efficient Soviet justice system.

Smith captures the rhythm of day-to-day paranoia in Stalinist Russia and the ways that personal jealousies can balloon into ruthless vendettas. It’s hard to fathom which is more grisly, the descriptions of the serial murders or the scenes of torture perpetrated by Leo’s colleagues in the MGB. Throughout, Smith’s prose is propulsive but plain; his real genius is his careful plotting. Like a matryoshka, the clues to his elaborate mystery are unveiled in sudden bursts, with another doll-like surprise nesting just beneath the surface of the latest revelation. A-

Child 44