Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith

A dark winter for the top cop in Stalin's pitiless Soviet Union
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The Independent Culture

While many of us admit to enjoying crime fiction as leisure reading, there is a residual guilt: shouldn't we be reading something more challenging?

Such feelings can be slaked when we encounter a crime novel that has the texture of more serious writing – which, largely speaking, is the case with Tom Rob Smith's debut novel, Child 44.

On the surface, this is a bravura crime narrative, with a maverick cop tracking a killer in the face of his disapproving superiors. But the added value here is a pungent recreation of a time and place: Stalin's pitiless Soviet Union of the 1950s. And the novel focuses on a major crise de conscience for its protagonist as his personality is torn to shreds; the preoccupation, in fact, of many a literary novel.

The instrument of the totalitarian regime is the Ministry of State Security, and Officer Leo Demidov is a star of the operation: a war hero, ruthlessly efficient and charismatic. Leo maintains his equilibrium through an ideological balancing act; he accepts the dictum that there is no crime in the workers' paradise that is the Soviet Union, even as he tracks down and punishes these non-existent criminals.

We are persuaded that a basically good man could put himself at the service of evil. The writerly skill that is required here is dexterously employed, although it is a misjudged device to render all speech in italics.

Then the body of a boy is found on a Moscow railway track, and the family are convinced that it is murder. Leo is instructed to bury the incident, but he harbours doubts. When his superiors sense this, his whole life begins to unravel. In disgrace, he is exiled with his wife to a bleak town in the Ural mountains.

He realises that a crime similar to the one he covered up in Moscow has occurred here. But pursuing a killer is not his only concern: his wife, Raisa, is arrested.

There are echoes of earlier crime novels here, notably Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park. In that, the maverick Soviet copper survived by working the system he despised. But here, Leo's world is destroyed when he realises that he is at the service of something malign.

While his moral struggle is as authoritatively realised as the deftly evoked wintry settings, one wonders what Smith will do in future outings for his hero. After all, Leo Demidov can hardly go back to believing in the beneficence of Joe Stalin.

(Simon & Schuster,£12.99 Order for £11.69 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897)

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