Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
Typically, the crime novel operates on the basic set of assumptions that wrongdoing has been perpetrated, and that wrongdoers must be sought out and punished to uphold a moral code, agreed upon by the state and the public. However, when the crime novel tweaks those conventions, interesting things happen.
The recent Tokyo Year Zero by David Peace deals with a detective's search for a serial killer in Tokyo in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Here, the horrific crimes of one man are blunted against the backdrop of death and devastation of a less sensational and individually targeted nature.
Child 44 explores similar ideas, played out in a very different setting - the last days of Stalin's Soviet Union in the early 1950s. Like Peace's novel, the serial killer here is loosely based on a real life murderer; however, the basic premise of that human life is valuable and criminals should be punished is challenged by an entirely different set of constructs. How can the State pursue a serial killer when the State itself is guilty of murdering thousands of its own citizens? And moreover, how can a Communist state pursue a serial killer when crimes like murder are supposed to be byproducts of capitalism?
There is no crime, so therefore, no crime has been committed.
At the beginning of the book, Leo Demidov is a high-ranking official in the MGB, the State Security force responsible for investigating suspected traitors, dissidents, and spies. Leo is unwaveringly loyal to the Party and assumes that, if he's asked to arrest someone, there must be a good reason. When the son of another MGB officer turns up mutilated with soil stuffed in his mouth, Leo is sent to convince the family to keep quiet about their suspicion that it was murder.
Leo's not cruel and he takes no pleasure in the brutality of his job -- he just knows how the system works, and what happens to people who make too much noise, people who get arrested.
Though this murder and others like it are central to the story, Leo initially has very little to do with them. The first half of the book is actually devoted to the series of events leading to Leo's loss of faith in his government and his subsequent fall from the Party's grace. It's an unusual choice, but Smith isn't simply treading water here in the build-up to the murder investigation. This section of the book does an excellent job of establishing the culture of paranoia and perpetual fear, as well as shattering Leo's assumptions about nearly every aspect of his life, including his marriage.
Once Leo is in a position to begin investigating the series of murders, all children, all mutilated with soil stuffed in their mouths, the book becomes more of a straightforward thriller. However, because of circumstances I won't spoil here, the stakes are very high and the reading experience very, very tense.
There's been a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and hype about Smith's Child 44, all of it deserved. There's a cinematic quality to the story (in fact, the rights have already been purchased by Ridley Scott, with Richard Price set to write the adaptation), but it never reads like a screenplay. The writing is complex, powerful, and sometimes devastating. It's a fascinating premise for a crime thriller, and Smith delivers on every bit of the story's promise.