I generally don't care for serial killer stories, I find that everyday "regular" crime holds plenty of drama and is much easier to connect with. However, the Soviet setting of this debut thriller intrigued me enough to dip into it for a few pages, and the writing on those first few pages swept me into the story very quickly. For the first 3/4, it's an excellent grafting of the serial killer genre onto the everyday horror of the early-'50s Stalinist era Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Smith succumbs to the thriller writer's temptation of having a huge plot twist toward the end, which unnecessarily sabotages what had been a grim and realistic story to that point. It's one of those twists that comes out of nowhere, and really doesn't serve much purpose other than as a "gotcha" moment -- the story could have worked just as effectively without it.
Other than this one vastly annoying flaw, the book is excellent. After a chilling prologue in the famine-devastated Ukraine of the 1930s (a famine engineered by Stalin, it must be noted), the story opens in 1953 Moscow, where we meet Great Patriotic War hero and militia officer Leo Demidov, as he pursues the interests of the state in tracking down its enemies. Smith takes plenty of time to build up the totalitarian setting, where fear and paranoia reigned, and reason was a luxury unavailable to the state. If you were a suspect, you were guilty, since the state did not make mistakes. The story focuses on Demidov, showing the privileges his family enjoys due to his position, and the precariousness of his position as a jealous underling plots to destroy him. (This underling is the weakest element in the book, as his hatred for Demidov is a critical catalyst several times in the story, but the motivation for it is far too one-dimensional.)
It isn't until 1/3 of the way into the book that the serial killer plotline starts to assert itself, and Leo begins to realize that the same killer might have struck hundreds of miles apart. It's also at this point that I realized that Smith was taking the case of the real-life Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo (aka "The Rostov Ripper") and moving it back in time a few decades. The killer's background, physical details, MO, and more are all based on the Chikatilo case. (I find it a little bit odd that while the "further reading" section at the end of the book makes a passing mention to a book on the Chikatilo case, Smith doesn't explain who Chikatilo was or just how directly he drew upon the case for the book. There have been several non-fiction books written about the case (such as Hunting the Devil), and two mediocre films based on it: Citizen X and Evilenko.) In any event, once Leo starts to suspect the existence of such a killer, he is severely hamstrung in his ability to do anything about it -- partly because the existence of such a madman is incompatible with the utopian ideals of the Soviet state. To admit such a killer would be to admit the imperfection of the state.
As Leo's star falls, he is also subject to a shock in his personal life which makes him question everything. Galvanized to find and kill the serial killer as an act of redemption, he manages to enlist some help even as he comes under further pressure from his nemesis. A classic trope of the thriller is that the hunter/truth-seeker becomes the hunted, and Smith pulls just such a maneuver off brilliantly. The book picks up momentum, and other than the unnecessary plot twist mentioned above, races toward the climactic showdown with great skill. It's an excellent debut novel, and should have wide appeal to fans of thrillers, the serial killer subgenre, and fans of Martin Cruz Smith.
Warning: Some spoilers in the review below.
Long a fan of "Citizen X" the HBO film about Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who killed children at large in the Soviet Union from 1978-1990, I'd heard some buzz about "Child 44", but didn't read any reviews until I purchased the book.
The young British author, Tom Rob Smith, made my jaw drop with his version of historical fiction, because yes, Smith takes the tale of Andrei Chikatilo (who has been written about in true crime genre) and moves it BACK in time, keeping the tale somewhat intact but setting it in Stalinist Russia in the early 50's. The contrast is startling, because, by the 80's, near the end of the Cold War, the denizens of the USSR had been disillusioned by the "glory" of Communism and had spent decades poor, hungry, frightened of the state. Despite that, the hunt for Chikatilo in the 80's was funded and followed, somewhat as an afterthought, by the state.
In the 50's, with Stalin's grip on the nation--it's a worker's paradise in everything but reality. And the leader would never allow such crimes as murder to exist. And with this change of landscape, the author, with what must have been painstaking research of the times, heightens the suspense, creates a sense of absolute hopelessness, and puts the military hero tracking the killer in fear for his own life and those of his family.
Pursuing the killer, and refusing to denounce his own wife, Leo Demidov places his own career and life in jeopardy. In addition to the deft way in which the author moves from Leo's childhood to his present, from the killer to Demidov and back, and into the stark conflict that is Leo's life with his wife, Raisa, Smith doesn't give up his terse, descriptive style; of the forbidding Lubyanka, he writes:
"Its façade created the impression of watchfulness: rows and rows of windows crammed together, stacked up and up, rising to a clock at the top which stared out over the city as though it were a single beady eye. An invisible borderline existed around the building. Passersby steered clear of this imaginary perimeter as if fearful they were going to be pulled in. Crossing that line meant you were either staff or condemned. There was no chance you could be found innocent inside these walls. It was an assembly line of guilt".
Brilliantly conceived, and flawlessly executed, "Child 44" is the best book I've read so far this year.
on June 26, 2008
Having never written a review of any sort, I could not help but express my thanks to the author for this reality check describing Stalin's Russia. The atrocities of the serial killer and those experienced by the Russian general population are the same in their brutality and insanity. This is a serial killer story straight from the pages of Animal Farm. If you are a grandparent give this book to your children. They will appreciate a good fiction story and gain a better picture of what happens in a totalitarian state. Later they can share this book with your grandchildren.
on February 5, 2013
Ok, so I was born and raised in Soviet Russia, my grandparents were living their lives during the time described in this book. The author claimed that some russian lady reviewed this book but either she didn't do a good job or the author didn't listen. I am sorry, but nobody would name their son Leo in a Russian village in 1930. Leonid -yes, Lev - yes, Vladlen (Vladimir Lenin) - yes, Leo- NO. Leo is also never used as a short for Leonid. Lenya is. But I was ready to overlook this detail (the name of the main character) for the sake of the very interesting story. Which is it was at first: interesting and even believable. The author lost me at the escape from the train. People arrested in Stalin's Soviet Union would not help anyone escape because it meant death to them and their families. Then when the whole village of people decided to help Leo and Raisa (by the way, she would be called Raya by her husband and family, Raisa is too formal), I started laughing. It was not possible in 1953. By that time, all people with courage were killed or sent to Gulag. The survivors were either believers or adapters. Either way, nobody dared do, say, think, or even dream against the Party. Finally, I mean what a stupid motive for killing all these children... Don't you think, it would be easier to write a letter to his brother?
on December 12, 2012
I'm willing to risk the good will of - apparently - the entire internet, in order to say that I really didn't enjoy "Child 44". Perhaps, largely because I have lived 'over here' for about twenty years. Sure, it's an argument from experience, but isn't that what "Child 44" purports, at least in part, to be? An argument drawn from historical experience?
I understand the fascination with the soviet experience, the good and the bad of it. I have been dealing with that fascination almost all my life - as a son of Slav parents who were not ethnically Russian, but who knew "the Soviet thing" in a real, experiential way. It's like a disease. It's something George Orwell talks about in his outstanding essay "the Prevention of Literature" when he stresses "the poisonous effect of the Russian MYTHOS on English intellectual life." We're all suckers for it. I believe that "Child 44" fails to approach that MYTHOS with any kind of serious consideration or respect.
Books like Tom Rob Smith's (and David Benioff's even more laughable "City of Thieves") just tick me off. They unconsciously glamorize something that has no glamour. None. They legitimize it by trivializing it, if you see what I mean. A cartoon is certainly much easier to handle than a 12-part documentary on PBS. But labeling Child 44 cartoonish does a disservice to cartoons.
Let's get something straight: I understand how pop fiction is supposed to work. And I'm no prude. I love a good murder mystery, a thriller, an espionage yarn filled with liars and LeCarre's 'seedy little men'. Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter books have a delicious horror and offer moments of outstanding lyricism. Read the first few pages of "Hannibal" (I think it's the third in the series) and tell me if the prose isn't deeply moving.
The murders, the gore in Child 44 - ostensibly based on the crimes of soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo - did not turn me off. They are a matter of record and fair game for a fictional treatment as much as anything else. But Smith's writing, its utter lack of subtlety, its ignorance of the nuance of soviet life, its tedious cause and effect line of reasoning, its all or nothing take on everything, its omnipresent melodrama, its historical distortions, and its tin ear for the Russian language, ugh. It all feels like a story a tourist who visited Moscow for a week would tell his family when he got back home to his solid homeland which boasts drivers who follow traffic laws, the presumption of innocence, and hot water on demand. Oh, and a homeland with NO SOVIET PAST peopled with the credulous who already believe in their hearts that Russians are not quite up to snuff.
I couldn't disagree more with those who loved "Child 44" - particularly with those who have been deceived into thinking that they "really learned something about Russia" - I hated it. So, for anyone who has an interest in the real horror, the absurdity, the humanity, and the ache of that period, there are so many better options available to you. Fiction, non-fiction, journalism, essay, genre fiction, and poetry: Solzhenitsyn, Grossman, Babel, Bulgakov, Akhmatova, Brodsky, and from perestroika to post-soviet - Pelevin, Tolstaya, Sorokin, and Dovlatov. They'll be harder to find, often harder to read, but they'll talk about real things. Things that Tom Rob Smith is only guessing at. And, to my reading, guessing wrong.
on June 18, 2008
The first 3/4 of this novel is a remarkable achievement. The prologue is harrowing, the dialogue razor sharp and the story and characters complex and fascinating. But perhaps the greatest strength of the novel is its setting (The Soviet Union in the early 1950's) and the premise that a serial killer could murder dozens, perhaps hundreds of children, and go undetected because of the State's unwillingness to admit that murder happens in their `utopian' state. Murders are blamed on vagrants and Western spies or are claimed to be accidents or otherwise covered up. The notion that a party member could commit such atrocities is contrary to the propaganda machine of the totalitarian regime. The majority of the novel is suitably bleak and cruel and suffocating as the state clamps down on its people and thwarts any attempt to solve these crimes. (Sounds dreary I know - but trust me, it's riviting).
Unfortunately I didn't care for the ending. There is the contrived plot twist that was completely unnecessary, but totally predictable - but I could live with that. And then the common folk rally behind our heroes, at great risk to their communities, to help in ways that seemed a little too 'warm and fuzzy' to me - but I could live with that too.
What I really struggled with was the aftermath. I don't want to ruin the ending for anyone, but suffice it to say that many things get resolved in a completely improbable, sentimental way that is completely out of sync with the realistic, dark tone of the rest of the novel.
I know I am probably in the minority here but I would have liked an ending that evoked Orwell's 1984. I suppose most people like a happy ending and I can't help but feel that Smith compromised in order to pander to them. To me, the aftermath sabotaged the novel. It just didn't fit with the tone of the novel.
The dilemma: How do you rate a novel that captivates you so fully, only to frustrate you in the end? To put this in context, the first part of Child 44 isn't just good. It's `Mystic River' good. It's `Silence of the Lambs' good. This could have been one of the best novels ever written.
In the end, I settled on 4 stars. The majority of this novel is too good to be ranked any lower and the ending (the last sentence of the novel is so sappy it makes me cringe to think about it) is so frustrating I can't bring myself to award it 5 stars. Regardless of my whining, this is still a great novel, well worth reading. (Of course, if you like a tidy, happy ending, you'll love the aftermath and feel all `warm and glowy' while you read the final page).
Am I the only one who didn't like the ending? In the comment section I have provided a synopsis of the ending I would have liked to have seen (don't read the comments if you haven't read the novel yet)
Leo Stepanivich Demidov, a war hero and member of the MGB, working as a high ranking employee of the State Security force, started off with one ambition: to serve his country. His job was frequently unpleasant, arresting and interrogating enemies, sometimes their own citizens who tried to undermine the government. Leo was involved with many successful arrests and took many prisoners, many of these prisoners guilty of anti-Soviet agitation, counterrevolutionary activity, and espionage. The problem was, no on could be sure they weren't guilty of these crimes, anybody from a retired vet to a top-ranking Party official could be under constant threat of arrest for attempting to overthrow, subvert, or weaken the Soviet Power.
When Leo finds himself in danger of arrest himself, the story starts to twist, and together Leo and his wife struggle against the very system that he once obediently and willingly served.
Leo and his wife are obsessed with solving a string of murders and this gruesome case soon becomes a cause they are both willing to die for. "Isn't this the way it starts? You have a cause you believe in, a cause worth dying for. Soon, it's a cause worth killing for. Soon, it's a cause worth killing innocent people for" PG 393. In trying to find justice, they were quickly forced to imitate the very system they were up against.
Child 44 was a thrilling mystery, love story, and horror story all in one. Even though parts of it were sickeningly gruesome, I found it hard to put it down. I have already recommended this book to many friends, and look forward to subsequent novels from this author.
on March 25, 2014
Russian war hero Leo Demidov has been a true believer all his life. "His levelheadedness, military success, good looks, and above all his absolute and sincere belief in his country had resulted in him becoming the poster boy -- quite literally -- for the Soviet liberation of German occupied territory." After the war, Leo is a perfect fit for the national security service. He's great at grilling suspected subversives, but he never questions the state. "The duty of an investigator was to scratch away at innocence until guilt was uncovered. If no guilt was uncovered then they hadn't scratched deep enough."
When a child turns up cut to pieces on train tracks, Leo acknowledges the tragedy but recognizes its essential meaninglessness in terms of his job. It was just an accident, right? "Careless children, unless they were careless with their tongues, were not State Security concerns." But the boy's parents are disturbing the commie quiet by raising all sorts of allegations about murder, a crime inconceivable under Josef Stalin's utopia, so Leo is sent to settle the grieving community down.
Leo's task distracts him from what he feels is a more important case: Anatoly Brodsky, a veterinarian who treats foreign dignitaries' animals, is suspected of spying, and he rabbited (sorry) while Leo was busy assuring the dead boy's family that the official verdict of accidental death is unassailable and unquestionable. It's all in the report! Now back to the chase.
At great personal risk, Leo retrieves Brodsky and brings him in for interrogation. Leo witnesses Brodsky undergo a mentally and physically debilitating process that results in a confession Leo knows is bogus. Doubt begins to creep in, eroding his convictions about ends and means and the greater good. Then he receives his next assignment: Investigate his own wife, Raisa.
Leo has been conditioned throughout his life to believe the "official report" as absolute truth. If it's in the report, well, that's how it went down. But now he's being set up by a vindictive subordinate, his family is endangered, and he realizes how easily the system can be manipulated by those with the power to define their own truth.
Leo and Raisa are arrested, but prosecuting a war hero and the public epitome of good commie values could prove problematic for the state, so Leo and his wife are exiled -- er, transferred -- to a new job in the sticks, a factory town that produces a car no one in Russia can afford to drive. "First and foremost this was a place of industrial production, a distant second a place to live."
Leo is assigned to work with the rube militia. "Every schoolchild was taught that murder, theft, and rape were symptoms of a capitalist society, and the role of the militia had been ranked accordingly. There was no need to steal and no violence between citizens because there was equality. There was no need for a police force in a Communist State. It was for this reason that the militia were nothing more than a lowly subsection of the Ministry of Interior: poorly paid, poorly respected -- a force comprised of secondary school dropouts, farmworkers kicked off the kolkhoz, discharged army personnel, and men whose judgment could be bought with half a bottle of vodka."
As often happens in this kind of novel, evil doings follow our hero, and Leo's first case is a murder with details suspiciously similar to the "accidental" death of the boy at the beginning of our story. More bodies are discovered, each bearing the marks of a habitual child murderer. That such a thing could even exist in a workers' paradise is an affront to a government that could easily squash the man investigating. "Our system is perfectly arranged to allow this man to kill as many times as he likes. And he's going to kill again and again, and we're going to keep arresting the wrong people, innocent people, people we don't like, or people we don't approve of, and he's going to kill again and again."
Although the reader is required to swallow a whopping ridiculous late-act revelation that smashes through the credibility barricades like a runaway tank piloted by Boris Yeltsin on a Stoli bender, "Child 44" is a likable book, but I have to nitpick about some sloppy editing. It's an occupational hazard with me. I edit for a living, so I get peeved by free-roaming clauses ("Caught by surprise, snow exploded around his ears.") and ungainly POV shifts. Take note of how many times Tom Rob Smith writes "in order to" when a simple "to" would suffice. And dammit, there's that "try and" again!
It's awfully hard to wring out new excitement from the thoroughly dessicated dishrag that the serial killer thriller has become. (Kudos to the folks behind "True Detective" for reintroducing actual terror and stomachache-inducing tension to the genre.) Smith incorporates elements of the political thriller and the Soviet setting to distinguish his book from the standard cop-chase-killer novel, but ultimately, "Child 44" is rather well-behaved and doesn't wander too far from its genre parents. And that's fine. A thriller writer doesn't have to reinvent the ritual murder each time out -- though I wish more authors would take a stab at doing so. "Child 44" is likely to keep most readers interested enough to go on to the second book of this trilogy, and that's accomplishment enough.
As far as NPR's blurb ranking this "one of the top 100 thrillers of all time," I would respectfully suggest to the nice people with the gentle radio voices who wake me up every morning that they might want to consider Gene Simmons' advice to venture outside their studios more often. Terry Gross could probably use the sunshine.
on June 26, 2009
I won't give any of the plot or action away, since it is a thriller, but I will say that I was entranced with the first third of the book - from its setting, to the almost palpable sense of paranoia and claustrophobia, it was a remarkable piece of writing - especially for a first-time novelist. (Although it turns out the author did some very famous folks shepherding him, including the guy who wrote the Chinatown screenplay). I found myself insisting my friends should read my copy as soon as I finished.
But the longer the book went on, the less impressive it became; the writing, the plotting, and the characters were increasingly more predictable ...dare I say, more Hollywood-like? (Curse you, William Goldman, for your pernicious influence!)
So in the end, I'll say it's barely recommendable - probably would've given it 3 stars, but I'll have to dock it a star for the way the latter half of the book betrayed the promise of the first half.
on July 15, 2008
If it weren't for the Soviet Union and the blood lust of the Russian communists, I would not exist. My parents were World War II refugees, on the run for their lives from Soviet-occupied Latvia. They arrived in the United States at about the same time, immigrants with nothing but what they wore on their backs, with the most skeletal English language skills. Had they not spotted each other across the room of immigrants and felt drawn one to the other, well, that would have been an entirely different story, and without me in it.
Even so, you won't hear gratitude from me. My existence does not by any measure outweigh the brutalities of Soviet power. A large percentage of the Latvian population was deported, tortured and executed under the communist regime. My life cannot measure up to such suffering of the multitudes. In later years, I traveled several times to the Soviet Union to see for myself this world that had so often been described to me, yet nonetheless remained and remains nearly incomprehensible. The experience of my travels behind the Iron Curtain is a memory that will never leave me. These are the memories and impressions returned to me with the reading of Tom Rob Smith's debut novel, Child 44.
Tom Rob Smith has taken his premise for Child 44 from the true story of Russian serial murderer, Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered over 50 women and children in Russia during the 1980s. Although Smith has set his story in an earlier time period, the 1950s, he has not lost, but only gained levels of intrigue and suspense by choosing the worst years of Soviet oppression. The difference, the author explains, is that in the latter years, someone in open rebellion against the political system might lose an apartment, while in earlier years, it would have meant the loss of life.
The story of Child 44 has the chill of historical and political accuracy. The author is still in his twenties at this writing, yet the combination of his research and already rich life and travel experience have given him the depth of insight required to bring this tale of Soviet horror vividly to life. I had to wonder, in fact, and quite often during my reading, how many readers less aware of Soviet history might construe this as mere fantasy. In too many ways, it is not. The sense of unraveling sanity and logic threaded throughout daily Soviet life is all too real: Black is declared white and white, black. What you see, you are told, is not what you see. What you know is not to be known. Deny everything. And in saving your own life, choose who will die among your loved ones.
Leo Demidov is a key character, the communist detective pursuing the killer who cannot be named. The first insanity is that the Soviet government denies the existence of crime in its so-called utopian state. If life is perfection, why would anyone commit a crime? Crime, they claim, is an outgrowth of a capitalist society. And then, a crime so gruesome as to kill a child, ripping open his belly to expose his insides, stuffing his open mouth with bark and gravel. Yet such dead and tortured children's bodies appear throughout Soviet Russia, and despite the growing threat to his own safety, Demidov is determined to stop the child murderer. He cannot question witnesses, however, when there is no official crime to witness. He cannot conduct investigations when there is no official crime to investigate. To stop these murders, Demidov must become himself a criminal against the state. Such is Stalin's workers' paradise ...
The stakes grow ever higher, as Demidov's loyalty to the state is tested when his wife is accused of being a spy. In spite of her innocence, Demidov is faced with calling the authorities liars by defending his wife--or handing over his innocent wife to be executed but show his loyalty to the state that does no wrong.
A page-turner, indeed, but blood runs even colder when one knows this type of existence was all too real behind the Iron Curtain of the very real Soviet Union. Tom Rob Smith has my respect and admiration for putting into words what makes so little sense to the rational mind. I suggest supplemental reading in the form of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago for the true history of this nightmarish world.
~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Summer 2008 Issue