The debut novel from Tom Rob Smith, Child 44, is a tour-de-force thriller that has all the power of a modern-day Hammet or Chandler combined with a rich description of Stalin-era Soviet Union. The story opens up in 1930s Ukraine, in a village named Chervoy. Pavel and his younger brother, Andrei, are trying to catch a cat to eat because they have no other food. The story then flashes forward to the totalitarian state of 1950s Russia. Charismatic war hero and officer of the state Leo Demidov is conflicted when the dead body of a young boy is found on a Moscow railroad track.
Demidov is told to bury the case (which is explained away as coincidence, because there is no such thing as murder according to the state), but he has strong convictions and wants to find the murderer. When his superiors in the Ministry catch wind of his idea, he and his wife are exiled to a town in the Ural mountains. Disgraced MGB officer Demidov realizes that a similar murder to the one covered up in Moscow has occurred here, but there is more for him to be concerned about. His wife, Raisa, is arrested on conspiracy and being an American sympathizer, and as Demidov pursues the killer, they are both tracked by the state like criminals themselves.
In this unabridged audio book form, all the quibbles over the the use of italics instead of quotations for dialogue are rendered moot. Narrator Dennis Boutsikaris (The Monster Of Florence, The Broken Window) delivers a strong performance, especially in reading the expertly crafted wintry settings - the snow, the frozen lakes, etc.
If nothing else, Smith creates a rich sense of time and place (albeit a bleak and oppressive place), which is the strongest aspect of this novel. A brilliant debut, and a completely enthralling listening experience.