Child 44

December 5, 2008

Title: Child44
Author: Tom Rob Smith
Reader: Dennis Boutsikaris
Audiobook 2008
Length: 12 hours

5 Stars

Available at: The Audio Book Store

Could there possibly be a serial killer in the Soviet Union? That’s the question raised in Child 44, a stunning first book by British author Tom Rob Smith. Set in 1953 Stalinist Russia, the story is as much a political thriller as it is a police procedural. Smith paints a dark and disturbing picture of a tyrannical government that at all costs tries to cover up a shocking truth: children are being savagely murdered in the most horrible way.

Smith starts the story in 1933 as he paints a picture of a society on the brink of chaos and disaster. These opening chapters are bleak beyond belief as villagers are faced with starvation or worse. The action centers on two brothers who desperately search for food – a neighbor’s cat that has wandered into the forest. Only one brother returns from the hunt. The story shifts to 1953 and to a MGB (the precursor to the KGB apparently) officer, Leo Demidov – a World War 2 hero who has gained status, a beautiful wife, a nice apartment in Moscow as he has systematically worked to find, capture and execute enemies of the state.

Leo is a true believer until another officer’s son is killed and Leo is sent to make sure that there is no investigation even though his colleague claims that the child was murdered. Things quickly deteriorate when a jealous subordinate manages to get Leo’s wife accused of subversion. Leo is told to renounce her, but he can’t and he is summarily exiled to a small town where he has no status, privileges or hope for survival. There he stumbles on the body of a child that seems to have been killed in the same way as the victim in Moscow. To continue the investigation Leo must risk everything.

Audio books that take place in foreign locales pose special challenges for the narrator. The challenge is to give some sense of reality through accents without making it difficult for listener to discern dialog and distinguish between various characters. Dennis Boutsikaris narrates with the right combination of enunciation and Russian accent that is easy to understand, yet doesn’t descend in the cartoon villain style. There are a lot of characters in Child 44, yet Boutsikaris, as did Jim Dale in the Harry Potter series, gives each a distinctive accent and speech pattern that makes it much easier for the listener.

I don’t want to give away any more of the plot (partly because I couldn’t begin to spell all of the characters names correctly – a curse of reviewing audio books), but I will tell you that I missed a crucial clue to the killer’s identity and was shocked when it was revealed late in the book. What elevates this work above the good suspense book is that the author meticulously paints a picture of life in the Stalinist Soviet Union where a wrong look, a borrowed book, or an accusation can get you sent to the gulag. I have no idea how accurate this portrayal is, but it feels very right to me. I was totally immersed in the world that Tom Rob Smith paints. For that reason an enthusiastic 5 ears.

Reviewed on 12/1/08 by Robert W. Karp




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