Friday, December 18, 2009

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (unabridged audio book read by Dennis Boutsikaris)

In 1933, a time when hunger is rampant, two young Russian brothers chase down a cat, and one of them disappears. Twenty years later in 1953, another of a different pair of brothers meets a mysterious end, and MGB agent Leo Demidov follows the official line that it was an "accident."

For, in the Stalinist Soviet Union, crime officially does not exist. This is an era when bad driving can get you sent to the gulag for twenty years. But some growing doubts Leo has about the government's interrogation methods (like the popular practice of torturing until a confession is made) come to a head when he is asked to investigate his own wife, Raisa.

Meanwhile, a serial killer runs free, eventually amassing over 50 victims — a killer with an astonishing motive. But this "killer" officially does not exist in a time and place where paranoia is a survival tactic under a dictatorship that believes even sadness to be a punishable protest against the government's policies.

Author Tom Rob Smith crafts his debut with care, though Child 44 does require some patience. Smith introduces the murders, then spends a great deal of time developing the character of Leo and his surroundings before returning to the violence some time later. Though I predicted the "revelation" early on (it could not have going any other way and still have been fair to the truly attentive reader), that did not lessen the novel's effect, due to the author's admirable skill.

Actor Dennis Boutsikaris reads Child 44 with deftness and confidence. He exhibits a level of comfort with the complex prose (not to mention the ubiquitous Russian accents) that one suspects would exceed even that of the author himself.

In addition, his voice is smooth and flows easily into the ear, reminiscent of Kevin Spacey (himself an audiobook reader at one time), with an undercurrent of menace that matches well to a story wherein one wrong word can mean instant death — and where even a slow death may be preferable to government sanctioned "justice." (Where even a government agent's reputation can rise and fall as often as the barometric pressure.)

The first sequel in this projected trilogy of novels, The Secret Speech, is already available. It is also read by Boutsikaris, who won a 2009 Audie Award in the Thriller/Suspense category for his work on Child 44.

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