Thursday, June 05, 2008

Book: Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith (2008)

The drums started beating early for Child 44, the debut novel by Tom Rob Smith. Big hardcover sale, film rights snapped up by A-list talent. It’s already represented on the awards circuit.

I would have read it without the hype. I’m a sucker for crime novels set in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, a genre in which, thanks to Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko books, the bar is set fairly high.

Set in 1953, Child 44 is inspired by the infamous Andrei Chikatilo case. Leo Demidov is a State Security officer who abruptly finds himself disgraced. He’s exiled to a militia post in the hinterlands, where he encounters a murder that bears startling similarities to one he essentially ignored in Moscow. Leo begins to suspect that a monster the likes of which has never been seen in Mother Russia is on the loose, abetted by the country’s culture of paranoia.

The book’s first third, setting up Leo’s downfall, is too deliberately paced, and Smith’s workmanlike prose – particularly in the murder scenes – doesn’t help matters. PERSONAL GRIPE: I’ve accepted dialogue being set off with dashes as opposed to quotation marks. Smith goes too far by italicizing it as well.

But Child 44 improves as it goes along. Smith doesn’t overdo the sense of oppression that comes from living in a totalitarian state, allowing the steady accrual of soul-crushing detail to do the work. Leo’s shaky marriage to wife Raisa slowly moves to the fore, becoming a rich, full-bodied relationship. And Smith uncorks a dazzling plot twist two-thirds of the way through that made me appreciate the groundwork laid in the early pages. The ending brazenly sets up not just a sequel, but an entire series. Odds are I’ll read what comes next.

Smith acknowledges Robert Cullen’s The Killer Department, a non-fiction account of the hunt for Chikatilo. In 1995 Cullen’s book was adapted by writer/director Chris Gerolmo into the HBO film Citizen X. It’s a terrific, suspenseful piece of work with a marvelous cast: character actor Jeffrey DeMunn as Chikatilo, Emmy winner Donald Sutherland as the wily bureaucrat keeping the investigation active, and Stephen Rea as the dogged and dog-tired detective forced to invent his technique as he goes. With this movie and V for Vendetta, Rea cornered the market in tools of the state with minds of their own.

The Rap Sheet’s Ali Karim interviews Tom Rob Smith here.