In 1932-1934, Stalin’s policy of forced collectivisation caused a famine that killed around six million people. In 1937, Stalin’s statisticians submitted a census of the population of the Soviet Union that fell short of Stalin’s estimates by six million people. Rather than revise his estimate and risk acknowledging that the famine had taken place, Stalin’s response was to send the statisticians to the gulag to be worked and starved to death themselves.
Tim Rob Smith quotes that anecdote as something that stood out from the litany of atrocities he encountered while researching Child 44. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, someone presenting facts was judged by the political acceptability of their facts rather than their veracity.
So what chance for a policeman who uncovers a crime in a society so perfect that crime is inconceivable? That’s the dilemma confronting Leo Stepanovitch Demidov, an agent of state security whose role is to seek out the political dissidents who threaten the perfection of society rather than non-existent criminals. He is the loyal servant his uniform proclaims him to be until the day he is required to denounce his wife, placing him on the horns of the dilemma one which he has torn so many others before him.
At the same time, he catches a hint of something foul in the state that is not of the state. It sets up a story that is as much an odyssey through the Russia of the early 1950s as it is a murder mystery. As Demidov’s choices land him on the wrong side of his colleagues, his hunt for a murderer takes him from the cities to the farms of Russia, and encompasses the dungeons of the Lubyanka and the gulag transport trains.
There were places where my inner critiquer wanted to do a bit of editing, and I particularly found the non-standard was of marking direct speech to be distracting rather than atmospheric. That said, it remained a novel of engaging characters and with a fast paced storyline. It’s an impressive debut novel that ensures I will read the rest of the trilogy it starts sooner rather than later.