CHILD 44 - Tom Rob Smith

Review Written By
Karen Chisholm

CHILD 44 is the debut novel for Tom Rob Smith, set in the dying days of Stalin's Soviet dream society, inspired by a real-life serial killer.

Starting in 1933, with villages of people starving to death in a desperate winter, the opening chapter of CHILD 44 deeply underscores the desperation of life in that environment.  Moving 20 years later in 1953 Moscow, a very young child is found dead on the railway tracks.  His death is barely investigated. The Security Services have other things on their minds.  Mostly vicious persecution of ordinary people.   Slowly, Security Ministry Officer Leo Demidov is being manoeuvred into the position of State enemy, and ultimately he is sent, along with the wife he refused to hand into the authorities, to the Ural Mountains where other children are found murdered.  Murder (and most crime) isn't acknowledged by the Soviet authorities, unless it can be blamed on the insanity or perversity of the perpetrator, so convenient scapegoats are found and the cases quickly closed.  Leo knows there's something more going on, and when the local Police General finally is convinced as well, they discover something much more sinister.  The problem then really becomes whether Leo and his wife can survive long enough to get to the end of the trail.

CHILD 44 takes a while to get moving - in terms of a pure investigation of crime novel.  The early part of the book is taken up with the events that lead Leo into the position of being "an enemy of the State".  Throughout this part of the book the direness of the Soviet experience, the petty corruption and bullying that a martial society allows are brutally explored.  The sheer cruelty of a system that seeks to find it's own citizenry guilty is glaringly stark.   

Patience as this building of scene is rewarded though as once the book hits the point at which Leo and Raisa (his wife) end up in the Urals, events begin to pile on top of each other.  

There's a lot more to CHILD 44 than the investigation of a shocking series of child murders.  What's also at stake is the whole way that fear can control a society, can affect personal relationships, can twist everything.


Obviously there's been considerable research into the background of CHILD 44, but the book doesn't read as a research tome - it reads as a story of fear, manipulation, power struggles, petty jealousy, brutality, cruelty, madness, loss, survival and humanity.

Year of Publication

Stalin's Russia, 1953. In a time when the only crimes acknowledged are those against the state, one man is determined to uncover the truth behind a series of murders the government denies.

Inspired by real-life serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, nicknamed the Butcher of Rostov, Child 44 is a thrillingly dark literary debut by 29 year-old Cambridge graduate Tom Rob Smith.

Drawing from elements of Chikatilo's life, including his traumatising childhood growing up during the famine caused by Stalin's agricultural policies, and his luring of victims from train stations into nearby woods before killing and mutilating them, this debut literary thriller will keep you on the edge of your seat while enveloping you in the claustrophobic and paranoid Russia that existed under Stalin's rule.

When Leo Demidov, one of the country's most loyal Security Ministry officers starts to question the State cover-up of crimes, his comfortable life takes a dramatic turn. Forced by senior officials to dismiss the horrific murder of a young boy and witnessing the torture of an alleged spy Leo knows is innocent, he chooses to give up his protected life to save his marriage, already on the brink of collapse. His decision leads them to a town deep in the Ural Mountains where he uncovers the murder of another child, a murder which bares a frightening resemblance to a child murder he was forced to deny.

With a killer on the loose, murdering children and dumping their bodies near train tracks all over the country, Leo and his wife set off on a wild hunt across Russia, risking disgrace, torture and death to hunt down the killer. 

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