TITLE: Child 44
AUTHOR: Tom Rob Smith
First in a trilogy. Set primarily in 1953 (there's a prologue set 20 years earlier) in the Soviet Union, this mystery/thriller packs a real punch. Leo Demidov, a war hero now working as a security officer in the MGB in Moscow, is tasked with hunting down dissidents. A naive, idealistic believer in the rightness and justice of the Soviet system, Leo has blinders on when it comes to the basic lies holding the Soviet system in place. When a colleague's son turns up dead in a bizarre fashion and the State claims it was a mere accident, the seed of doubt is planted in Leo's mind that things might not be as they seem in Stalin's USSR. But it's not until he's assigned to investigate his own wife and refuses to denounce her, that he truly begins to question the realities of the Soviet system. After all, there can be no murder in a system where everything is perfect; only deviants can commit crimes. For every death, there must be a swift resolution, from labeling it an accident to finding a drunk or homosexual to blame.
Throughout the book, Leo remains a loyal citizen, but he slowly loses his naivete. Forced into exile with his wife, Leo must work a menial job with the local militia far east of Moscow, Leo discovers more deaths of children that match the circumstances of his former colleague's dead son. But to investigate means risking far more than exile this time, yet Leo knows the killer will keep killing unless someone stops him.
Smith captures the paranoia of Stalin's Russia and captures what it must have been like to live in a society where neighbors turn in neighbors as a survival technique and no one can be sure who among them is a spy for the State. Against that backdrop, Leo is compelled to solve a mystery that becomes increasingly dangerous for him, his wife, and the parents he left behind in Moscow.
The book works as a mystery and as historical fiction and while I started figuring out aspects of the mystery ahead of the reveal, that didn't diminish the storytelling in the least. My only quibble with the book is that Smith uses a technique I've seen before and don't like, using dashes and italics to set off dialogue rather than using quotation marks. I don't know how this got started, but it's really annoying, making me think I'm reading someone's thoughts rather than their spoken words. But that doesn't take away from a compelling story well told.