By September 5, 2008 1 Comments Read More →



Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central, 2008)

As a life long mystery reader, I am often asked to defend reading mysteries when “they are all the same.”  It is true that there is a comfortable format to many mysteries that I read and that is why I like to read them.

However, to make a mystery really sing for me, it has to be about something else besides the murder and the investigation.  For some mystery readers, that something else can be the topic:  cooking, traveling, sewing or antiques.

For me, the something else is theme.  I want the book to be about a theme so compelling that I cannot put the book down.  Then I am happy.

Often when I am reading a thriller, I am saying to myself, “Why do people read these things when they are all the same?”

I guess we can safely say that in order to read and enjoy a thriller, I need it to have a strong theme.  Being thrilled is not enough.  I also need to learn something, be challenged by something and/or be angered by something in the thriller so that it is not just about things that go bump in the night or chase the protagonist from one location to another.

I am wondering about the value of selecting a thriller for a book discussion title.  My theory (because it is also my opinion) is that a thriller will only work for a book discussion if it has a strong theme. 

My shining example of a thriller that will thrill any book discussion group is Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. 

Leo Stepanovich Demidov works for the MGB (or State Security Force) in Moscow.  When we meet him, it is the last year of Stalin’s reign and the Soviet Union has descended into a state of excess where everyone is paranoid with good reason.  The state has created so many reasons to be viewed as an opponent of the government that everyone has been turned into a spy.  Everyone has turned on everyone to the point where family members are willing to turn in their own to save themselves.

When Leo’s MGB co-worker Fyodor Andreev’s son is found dead near some railroad tracks, Fyodor is convinced his son was murdered.  The boy was found naked, disemboweled, with dirt stuffed in his mouth.  It becomes Leo’s job to visit the family and tell them that this is impossible.  The boy was hit by a train.  In Stalinist Russia

           There is no crime

While angered at being assigned this onerous task, Leo is also worried about his real assignment:  the fate of veterinarian Anatoly Brodsky.  Brodsky is under suspicion because he has treated a pet of an American embassy staff member.  Leo has hesitated to arrest him because he would like more proof, a decision that will cost him dearly.  The irony here is that a society that believes there is no crime has elevated any suggestion of behavior that threatens the status of the
Union to be the highest crime and employees a relentless security force to hunt down and punish anyone who steps over any line. 

While Leo is disappointing Fyodor, Brodsky escapes. 

Here is where this thriller begins to take on the aspects of a noir novel.  In a noir, the central character always makes one decision, major or minor, that seals their fate—and that fate is never good.

Leo’s hesitation to put the needs of the state ahead of his own personal moral needs means he is screwed.  He sets off into the countryside to apprehend Brodsky, but what he does not anticipate is that within his own squad he is harboring a man more committed to the Stalinist way then he is.

Every good thriller needs a villain extraordinaire.  In Child 44, that person is Vasili Ilyich Nikitin.  He sells Leo out to the state and then becomes obsessed with making sure that Leo’s life is a horror show.  Dragged into the mire with Leo is his beautiful wife Raisa and his parents, for the Soviet Union punishes all in the perimeter of those who have offended the state. 

Spared the Gulag, Leo is sent to the farthest reaches of the empire, to the industrial nightmare town of Voualsk in the Ural Mountains.  Demoted to the lowest position in the local militia, Leo is stunned to make the central discovery of this thriller:

            There is crime

Leo discovers another child, murdered by the exact same methods as Fyodor’s son in Moscow. 

It has been awhile since a novel has had such a visceral effect on me.  This is truly a book that a reader cannot put down.  It is so emotionally draining to read this relentless account of this senseless society.  As a character, Leo is forced to reexamine every belief system he operates under and this makes him a compelling person to observe. 

This should be a thrilling book to discuss. 

Barnes and Noble has a reader’s guide for this title at



About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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