This is a rare novel – a piece of crime fiction in which the crime does not feel like a device. So many crime novels present various grisly murders solely so that their detectives can dance, the characters often feeling like puppets. The puppeteer can continue writing until he or she runs out of crimes to think of, when at last their detective can retire, or be killed off themselves.
Child 44 is different, because the crime is almost a secondary thread of the novel, which is set in Soviet-era Russia and revolves around the charismatic survivalist, Leo Demidov. Leo’s confidence in the Soviet state is gradually worn down as he is forced to confront the evidence that a series of tragic accidents are all connected – and the state’s refusal to accept that a crime has been committed. By daring to investigate the crimes, he himself comes under both suspicion and threat, alongside his whole family.
Inspired by a true case, this novel is a fast-paced thriller, packed full of dark secrets and twists which leaves the reader wholly satisfied at the end. Leo is not an entirely likeable character, but his personality quirks are not stock ‘maverick’ features we come to expect of fictional detectives; they are the product of the cruel environment which he had grown up in, and has learnt to survive in – but his chances of survival dwindle increasingly as he inches closer to the secret behind the death of child 44.