At the height of the Cold War, a serial killer is on the loose in Soviet Russia. An unlikely hero, Leo Demidov, has to use stealth and misdirection to solve the heinous crimes. The problem is, investigating crime in the Soviet regime means admitting that there is crime. In the workers' paradise, crime, of course, should not exist. Child 44, Tom Rob Smith's first novel, traces Leo's pursuit of truth in spite of state dogma, while describing a political and social system that we can be thankful no longer exists (at least in that form).
Leo, a war hero and patriot, serves in the secret police, whose primary objective is to uphold the State. Suspects are guilty until proven innocent, but they are never proven innocent because only the guilty are arrested. To release someone who had been arrested would be to admit that the State made a mistake, and the State never makes mistakes.
Leo convinces the family of a murdered child to accept the murder as a mere accident, but when he learns of murders that resemble that child's murder, he doggedly pursues the truth about the killer. Of course he must do so covertly and at the risk of his life because of the treasonous thought that there is a murderer on the lose and that the State had not "solved" the crimes correctly.
On one level, Leo's chase is good crime drama. Putting the pieces together, while constantly looking over his shoulder, he never imagines where the path is taking him. (The reader, however, has a pretty good idea before Leo does. . . .) Leo's crisis of integrity and determination to do what he knows is right makes the story interesting, as does the setting of Soviet Russia and the bureaucratic, oppressive, hypocritical, deadly, unjust, and downright evil mess that it was.
If parts of the story, especially the climactic reveal, seem a bit stilted or contrived, that's OK. It's crime fiction, not academic history. Child 44 is a fun read. I look forward to Tom Rob Smith's next book.