How do you investigate a murder in a society where the very idea of murder is unthinkable? This is the existential challenge confronting Leo Stepanovich Demidov, a Soviet state security (MGB) officer in the latter years of Stalin’s dictatorship. When he finds evidence that a colleague’s young son has been murdered, he covers it up. According to the Party line, such a crime is a not possible in the Soviet utopia. To say otherwise is the kind of blasphemy that leads to the Lubyanka prison and a bullet in the back of the head.
Leo Stepanovich’s mind becomes free to inquire only after an enemy denounces him. He loses his important job and cushy apartment, and is sent to work in a miserable Siberian town. There, truth assaults him from all sides. His wife admits that she married him only because she feared his power in the secret police. His colleague’s murdered son, he learns, is only one of dozens of victims of a sadistic serial killer. And the true nature of the Soviet system is becoming clearer every day.
Perhaps you’re thinking that Child 44 is a brooding psychological novel that explores its hero’s moral dilemma in a deep and leisurely way. Nyet! It is a thrilling thriller that grabs you by the lapels and won’t let go. The violence is grisly and plentiful. The chase scenes belong in an over-the-top action movie. (The novel is set to be made into a film, with Ridley Scott directing.) As the story reached its crescendo, with plot bombs exploding right and left, I should have been rolling my eyes at the implausibility of it all. But too late! I was already completely hooked.
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