Maybe when I put some time between myself and this book I will be able to give it the 5 stars I think it might deserve but reading it left me so horrified that I can't give it more than 4 stars at present.
I was not ignorant about the excesses of the Soviet Regime in Stalin's time. I studied the Russian Revolution at school. I have read Solzhenitsyn. But I also grew up with Ronnie Reagan's 'Evil Empire' and the regimes of Brezhnev and Gorbachev.
I enjoyed Gorky Park a lot and thought Child 44 might be similar. But Gorky Park was written in 1980 and until I read Child 44 I didn't fully comprehend that for the USSR the 1950s was a totally different universe.
This book describes the Soviet justice system in appalling detail, the torture, the executions, the steam roller of a system against which there is no defense or protection. The realization that once you have been accused no explanation will be considered valid , no evidence will be acceptable as proof of your innocence, there will be no exoneration, no escape and anyone connected to you by blood or friendship will be considered guilty by association.
In this context is becomes completely understandable why people so willingly 'snitched' on their neighbours or agreed to cooperate with the State in spying on their friends and also why so few people stood up to the system and demanded change.
The story itself has three sections.
First we become acquainted with the major characters Leo, Leo's colleague Vasili and Leo's wife Raisa. We are also introduced to the system, the process of 'justice' in the USSR and Leo's part in it, a Leo who at this point believes in the system, believes that the torture and terror tactics are necessary to eventually improve everyone's lives.
The second section involves Leo's awakening, it shows how Leo begins to see the flaws in the system, begins to doubt what he is doing until he too becomes a victim of this 'justice' and loses all the pleasures and privileges of his former life.
Finally the narrative takes up the mystery of the murdered children. We have been shown flashes of this plot throughout the story but only at this point do the two plot lines come together. Leo realizes that despite the danger this investigation poses to his life he cannot let it be, he cannot accept the system's cover up and the lie that in the Soviet State such crimes do not happen. Through the investigation he discovers his true character and rebuilds his life.
At first my horror at the system overwhelmed my horror that the appalling crimes being committed. I quickly became involved in Leo's life and the dilemma's he faced, hoping that he would make the right decisions.
Only once Leo's world has collapsed does he have to grapple with the reality of life, of who he is and of people's true feelings towards him. All that is left in his life is the mystery of the murders and the conviction that they are being committed by a serial killer. Although even Leo is concerned that he maybe using the investigation as a way to redeem himself, morally, the narrative manages to convey the dread imbued by these harrowing crimes such that we are as convinced as the characters that they simply cannot remain passive and follow the Party line.
Despite the fact that the content gives us plenty to think about the plot moves forward at quite a pace. The pace slows a little as Leo and Raise settle into their new circumstances but then picks up again as the investigation reaches its conclusion.
This book is truly a page turner and several of the chapter endings left me in shock
but there is never a feeling that it is rushed nor does the story ever drag.
The conclusion of the investigation is well written and credible, however the end of the book seems a little convenient, a requirement of the fact that the book is the first in a series.