Child 44, the debut novel of Tom Rob Smith was included in the longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2008. It missed out in the final analysis but was up against some pretty hefty competition. My view is that the judges made a significant error – but that is another story. Nevertheless, even without this ringing endorsement the book sold millions of copies, some hopefully because I praised so highly and so widely. But that was long before I started a blog. Child 44 was followed by The Secret Speech in 2009 and the trilogy has been completed with the publication of Agent 6 which came out this year.
The three books span decades of Stalinist Russia and follow the difficulties, loyalties, relationships and eventual disintegration of the Ministry of State Security, particularly one of its chief officers, Leo Demidov. Child 44 starts in 1950 when the USSR was still in the grip of Stalin’s reign of terror. The state expected its inhabitants to believe that there was no crime, but the death of a child causes Demidov to question the official line, and when he persists in the investigation he is disgraced, demoted and exiled to the Ural Mountains with his wife Raisa. In the second book, The Secret Speech which opens in 1953, Stalin is dead and the political structures are cracking up, criminals are now innocent and the state police are now the criminals. In the epic final, Agent 6, the action swings between 1950 and 1981, three decades in a changing world; two continents divided by the Cold War; several deaths and an over-arching conspiracy which tragically involves all the people Leo loves.
All of these thrilling, edgy, relentlessly gripping novels have a firm basis in the history of Stalinist Russia, some of the action is based on real events and the outcomes are predictably horrible for those taking part. A decent human being must have been torn to pieces while trying to fulfil his or her patriotic duty in the face of overwhelming inequalities, lies and political back stabbing. Trust was impossible, the incautious word or gesture could mean the gulag or worse, naiveté is tantamount to insanity since it leads to unforeseen complications and conspiracy, the price of silence was often the price of integrity.
Leo Demidov displays all the qualities that the reader wants in the hero, and his conflicted life fully demonstrates the horrors of the time. These make a marvellous selection for anyone wanting to see behind the scenes, domestic hardship, political manoeuvrings or state sponsored terrorism – it is all here – how can you not want to read them?.