The Stalinist credo of Russian secret police and their willing executioners was unambiguous: "Better to let 10 innocent men suffer than one spy escape." In Tom Rob Smith's debut novel "Child 44" (439pages.Grand Central Publishing), Leo Stepanovich Demidov, a loyal member of the State Security force that would later go by the infamous initials KGB, operates according to that principle—despite the innocent lives he destroys in the process. Until, that is, he is faced with a murder case that shakes his confidence that the guilty are punished along with the innocent. Smith's story is remarkable not just as an absorbing thriller but also as a penetrating deconstruction of the myths that passed for Soviet justice.
Smith bases his novel very loosely on the true story of Andrei Chikatilo, the notorious serial killer who was tried and executed for the murders of 52 women and children in Russia between 1978 and 1990. But the young British writer cleverly pushes his story back to 1953, when Stalinism was still very much alive. Leo was a war hero who was naturally drawn into the secret police, and Smith leaves no doubt about his willingness to serve his country and its ruthless system. "He would've run Gulags in the arctic tundra of the Kolyma region had they asked him to," Smith writes. Leo is firmly convinced that his masters are perfectly justified in demanding blind obedience.
As so often happened in Stalin's Soviet Union, however, this principle is thrown into doubt when the hunter abruptly becomes the hunted. Leo is instructed to hush disquieting rumors that the son of Fyodor, a junior colleague, has been murdered. The official report of the death blames it on an accident on the railroad tracks, but neither Fyodor nor his neighbors believe it. Without ever examining the evidence, Leo does his duty and warns Fyodor not to question the official version of events, winning his grudging silence but also his enmity. When Leo's performance in another investigation raises questions about his own judgment, the shadow of suspicion is suddenly cast upon him, and Fyodor gets a chance to seek his revenge.
Leo's world begins to unravel. With the relentless logic that anyone suspected of anything must be guilty—a logic that Leo himself employed against countless others—the machinery of repression begins to close in on its latest victim. As an ostensible test, Leo is ordered to investigate his own wife, Raisa, an attractive teacher caught in a loveless marriage. The secret policeman understands the logic of this better than anyone: if he reports that she's a loyal citizen, he will prove his disloyalty. The couple appears doomed. But Stalin's timely death creates a moment of indecision among his henchmen that allows husband and wife to escape with relatively light punishment: Leo is demoted to the lowest rank of the regular militia, and assigned to a desolate city near the Urals.
Although spared the Gulag or outright execution, Leo soon encounters his own worst hell. Thrown together with his wife in a new way, he learns that much of what he once believed was a lie: that she was attracted to him in the first place, and that his profession had anything to do with law enforcement. This becomes apparent when he discovers the cover-up of another grisly child murder in the town to which he's exiled, and then begins to pick up on the evidence that a serial killer has been methodically murdering children in a similar way in towns along the railroad lines. To suggest that a serial killer could be on the loose is seen as heresy, since such crimes are supposed to happen only in decadent capitalist societies, not in the workers' paradise.
Smith then sends husband and wife on a desperate search to find the real killer. Here the book goes into thriller mode, complete with changes of heart, chase scenes and a somewhat pat explanation of the killer's unusual motive, which is very different from the sexually driven case of the real-life Chikatilo.
But that's only a quibble. The plot moves briskly along from start to finish. Equally important, it achieves its other aim of debunking the myth that police states at least have the virtue of wiping out crime. In a system built on the premise that anyone who becomes a suspect must be tortured into admitting guilt, many real criminals go free. As his eyes are opened, Leo lurches toward redemption. His may be an improbable journey, but Smith convinces us that it just might have happened. And we cheer Leo on all the way.