Books: Tom Rob Smith's "Child 44," Soviet killer

The credo of the willing executioners of the Stalinist secret police was unambiguous: "Better to let 10 innocent men suffer than one spy escape." Leo Stepanovich Demidov, a loyal member of the state security force that would later go by the infamous initials KGB, operates according to that principle throughout his professional career-no matter how many innocent lives he destroys in the process. That is, until he is faced with a murder case that shakes his confidence that the guilty are punished along with the innocent. Tom Rob Smith's "Child 44" is a remarkable debut novel on a number of levels, not just as an absorbing thriller but also as a penetrating deconstruction of the myths of what passed for justice in the Soviet Union.

Smith bases his novel very loosely on the true story of Andrei Chikatilo, the notorious serial killer who was tried and executed for the murders of 52 women and children in Russia between 1978 and 1990. But the young British writer cleverly pushes his story back to 1953, when Stalinism is still very much alive even though the tyrant dies. Leo was a war hero who was naturally drawn into the secret police, and Smith leaves no doubt about his willingness to serve his country and its ruthless system. "He would've run Gulags in the arctic tundra of the Kolyma region had they asked him to," he writes. Leo is firmly convinced that his masters were perfectly justified in demanding no less than this kind of blind obedience.

As so often happened in Stalin's Soviet Union, the hunter abruptly becomes the hunted. Leo is instructed to hush disquieting rumors that the son of Fyodor, a junior colleague, was murdered. The official report of the death blames it on an accident on the railroad tracks, but neither Fyodor nor his neighbors believe it. Without ever examining the evidence, Leo does his duty and warns Fyodor of the dangers of questioning the official version of events, winning his grudging silence but also his fierce enmity. When Leo's performance in another investigation raises questions about his judgment, the shadow of suspicion is suddenly upon him and offers an opening for Fyodor to seek his revenge.

Leo's world begins to unravel. With the relentless logic that anyone suspected of anything must be guilty-a logic that Leo has employed against countless others-the machinery of repression begins to close in on its latest victim. As an ostensible test, Leo is ordered to investigate his wife Raisa, an attractive teacher caught in a loveless marriage. The secret policeman understands the logic of this better than anyone: if he reports that she's a loyal citizen, he will prove his disloyalty. The couple appears doomed. But then Stalin dies, creating a moment of indecision among his henchmen that allows Leo and Raisa to escape with relatively light punishment: Leo is demoted to the lowest rank of the regular militia and assignment to a desolate city near the Urals.

Although spared the gulag or outright execution, Leo discovers his own worst hell. Thrown together with his wife in a way he has never been before, he learns that so much he believed was a lie: that she was attracted to him in the first place, and that his profession had anything to do with law enforcement. This becomes apparent when he discovers the cover-up of another grisly child murder in the town where he's exiled, and then begins to pick up on the evidence that a serial killer has been methodically killing children in a similar way in towns along the railroad lines. To suggest that a serial killer could be on the loose is heresy, since such criminals are supposed to exist only in decadent capitalist societies, certainly not in the workers' paradise.

Smith then sets husband and wife off on a desperate search to find the real killer, as opposed to the countless people already executed for the murders, which they didn't commit. Here the book goes into genuine thriller mode, complete with changes of heart, chase scenes, and a somewhat too pat explanation of the unusual motive of the serial killer, which is very different from the sexual motive of the real-life Chikatilo.

But that's only a quibble. The thriller plot moves briskly along from start to finish. Equally important, "Child 44" achieves its other aim of debunking the myth that police states at least have the virtue of wiping out crime. In a system built on the premise that anyone who becomes a suspect must be tortured into admitting guilt, many real criminals go free. As his eyes are opened, Leo lurches toward redemption. His may be an improbable journey, but Smith convinces us that it just might have happened. And we're cheering Leo on all the way.