Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Book Review - Thrillers - Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

The following review contains very minor plot spoilers that some readers might rather avoid.

While I do like mysteries, I’m not much of a fan of thrillers, and especially not political thrillers, however several friends suggested I give English screenwriter, Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel, Child 44 a read, and when I recently found myself with some hours to kill while on a fairly long flight to Hawaii (my husband, who was seated beside me isn’t much for “plane conversation”), I decided to give it a try.

The book did a wonderful job of pulling me in.

Child 44 is set in Stalin’s Soviet Union of the 1950s and revolves around WWII hero and MGB member, Leo Stepanovich Demidov. The book begins, though with three males whose first names all begin with the letter “A” – Andrei, Arkady, and Anatoly. Andrei appears during the book’s 1933 Prologue, which revolves around a young boy who disappears during a terrible famine. Then there is Arkady, a young boy who’s found dead on a suburban Moscow railway line. And finally there’s Anatoly, who’s been accused of spying and is on the run from the MGB and more specifically, Leo. These three boys/men set the stage wonderfully for the story that follows, and better yet, they set the tone of the book – bleak, haunting, and creepy. But back to Leo Demidov.

Leo’s troubles begin when the body of a young boy – Arkady, to be exact – is found on a Moscow railway line and subsequent examinations show the boy was no doubt murdered. This is Stalin’s Soviet Union, a worker’s paradise, and murders, of course, are not supposed to take place. Since the boy’s father, Fyodor, is a friend of Leo’s, it’s Leo who’s sent to the parents’ home to “quash any unfounded speculation, to guide them (the parents) back from the brink.”

Now, Leo is a “good” member of the Communist Party; his dedication to the MGB is unquestioned. He “understood its necessity, the necessity of guarding their revolution from enemies both foreign and domestic, from those who sought to undermine it and those determined to see it fail. To this end Leo would lay down his life. To this end he’d lay down the lives of others.” Leo, it would seem, is the perfect person to defuse the public’s growing interest in the “murder” of an unfortunate young boy in a Moscow suburb. But Leo’s dedication and loyalty are not set in stone.

When the bodies of more children are found, their mouths stuffed with tree bark like Arkady’s had been, their stomachs excised, Leo knows his suspicions are true, and that the children were most definitely murdered, and moreover, that their deaths were the work of one brutal serial killer. These were no random killings, committed by men who’ve already been charged, convicted, and sent to prison as the Party asserts. And the families, Leo thinks, should not be “forced” to accept the official verdict of a “terrible accident.” But Soviet Russia has been too good to Leo for him to start making waves now. Or has it?

It’s only when Leo realizes that a man he hunted down and cruelly tortured was innocent that he begins to question himself and his Party. And then he’s ordered to spy on Raisa, his own wife. Of course, Leo, himself gave the Party its ammunition for that one. He suspects his schoolteacher wife of doing a little more than comparing notes with one of her fellow teachers.

Initially, Leo does as he’s told, spying on Raisa and trying not to over think his situation. In Stalinist Russia, however, Raisa Demidova’s guilt was decided before she was even accused. Leo and Raisa are exiled to the distant Urals, where Leo takes up his post as a small town policeman, lucky just to be alive. And there, in the bleak Siberian countryside, Leo (too conveniently) finds two more murdered children, mutilated in the same way the bodies of the Moscow children were mutilated. Now he understands: someone is “riding the rails,” killing children all across Russia. He and Raisa, who admits she had only married him out of fear, begin to draw closer together, both determined to find the killer and stop him.

It’s obvious that Smith has used the real life story of Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, better known as the “Rostov Ripper,” as a base from which to fashion his plot, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. In fact, I found the first one-half to two-thirds of this novel gripping. I loved its bleakness and its creepiness. And it is bleak. Smith uses just the right details in the first part of his book to hook readers and keep them turning pages – hospitals, farms, and orphanages that aren’t named, but numbered, instead, the local factory replacing the local church, men who die of “hopelessness, uninterested in surviving if this is all there [is] to survive for.”

It isn’t until page 275 of Child 44 that Tom Rob Smith lets his readers know what that cryptic title means. Some readers have called the revelation shocking. I call it ho-hum. And here is where the book starts to come unhinged.

Smith, who conceived his story in screenplay format, is, strangely enough, best when he’s creating atmosphere, when he’s evoking the little details that make this book bleak, haunting, and creepy. His skills in plotting, characterization, and, for a screenwriter, surprisingly, in dialog, leave much to be desired.

It isn’t that Leo is a bad character; it’s just that he’s too much of what we were expecting. There’s no freshness or originality about either Leo or Raisa. Leo isn’t particularly handsome. He’s got a bad meth habit he picked up during the war. He loves his parents, who were forced to vacate their spacious Moscow apartment for one considerably smaller when Leo was exiled to the Urals. His marriage is in trouble. He carries with him long-buried family secrets. He’s dedicated to his job, but he also has a conscience that keeps him from becoming “one of the bad guys.”

To make matters even worse, it seems as though Smith, himself can’t decide whether he wants Leo to be a dedicated member of the Party or a cynic. Raisa – and others – mention Leo’s “blind faith in the State” more than once, but I have to wonder if they were talking about the same Leo I was reading about. Because if they are, that Leo has been pretty cynical from the very start of things. A scene or two showing us Leo’s “blind faith to the State” would have made Raisa’s, etc. comments a whole lot more convincing.

And what about that “strained” marriage of Leo’s and Raisa’s? Raisa goes so far as to tell Leo that she never loved him, that she only married him out of fear of his position in the MGB. Yet by the middle of the book, Leo and Raisa are a veritable Russian “Tommy and Tuppence,” and by the book’s end they couldn’t be more in love.
I found the Leo/Raisa subplot forced and detracting from the overall story rather than adding to it and making it richer as good subplots should do. In fact, I found the “getting back together and making our marriage stronger” subplot, as well as Raisa, herself, to be mind-numbingly boring. And in one long sequence, during which the husband and wife duo find tools and weapons in the most unlikely of places and from the most unlikely of persons, Leo and Raisa turn into James Bond and Lara Croft. This was slightly believable from Leo, but Raisa was a schoolteacher, not a trained spy.

The book’s “bad guy,” Vasili, who is not the murderer, doesn’t fare any better. He’s such a stock character that he’s downright cartoonish. I could almost see him twirling a long, thin mustache as he spoke and sneered.

And why, for heaven’s sake did Smith think it best to dispense with standard quotation marks around his dialogue and italicize it, instead, and set it off with hyphens? This odd choice (in a debut novel and in a thriller) made the dialogue a chore to read. It caused the dialogue to call attention to itself, and dialogue really shouldn’t do that. At times, it’s difficult to know who’s speaking, and the reader has to go back and figure it out. I appreciate the lack of unnecessary “he saids” and “she saids” but readers do need to be able to follow a conversation without working so hard to do so.

The plot is messy. It meanders all over the place, and the book would be better off if it ignored some of the places the plot meanders to.

Smith’s writing style is ponderous and weighty, and his grammatical errors are, on occasion, hilarious, and hilarity is not something one should find in this particular book. Smith seems fond of dangling participles, e.g., “Excited, the blade went in further and faster,” misused words, e.g., “He no longer believed that they would be designated a better residence,” and vague pronouns, e.g., “To Leo’s surprise the prisoner reached up and, with his wrists still bound, felt his brow.” There’s just no excuse for mistakes such as those. If Smith is a sloppy writer, then his editor should have made the corrections.

Without going into detail about the plot, while the first one-half to two-thirds of the book is fairly good, the final half dissolves into a jumble of clichés and coincidences that kind of made me forget all the good stuff that went before. And the worst part is that it needn’t have done so.

Hoping for redemption at the book’s end, I persevered and read on only to find that the final twist was truly contrived. No other serial killer in the history of literature has given his or her readers such a truly nutty explanation as to “why he did it.” And the worst part, the most annoying part of this whole reading experience was confirmation of the fact that I had known the identity of the killer since the end of the first chapter, and I'm not even very good at figuring things like that out. Yes, Mr. Smith, I read Darkly Dreaming Dexter (a vastly superior book), too, and I suspect many of your other readers will have read that book as well. That book was so fresh and original that I really can’t blame Smith for borrowing a little something from it. Just be aware that if you’re a “Dexter” fan, the identity of Child 44’s killer, as well and Leo’s dark secret, won’t be any mystery to you, either.

Not surprisingly, since Smith is a screenwriter, and since Child 44 is such a cinematic book, Ridley Scott is scheduled to direct the film adaptation. Thankfully, Smith won’t be writing the screenplay. With Scott at the helm, I think this definitely will be a movie that’s better than the book.

Child 44 was nominated for seventeen International Awards, and it actually won seven, which was very surprising to me. The most surprising was that it was longlisted for the Booker. My goodness, come on, this book might be an okay way to pass a day or two at the beach, but it’s certainly not Booker material. I don’t mind the fact that a thriller/political thriller was nominated; I think it’s high time the really well written thrillers were recognized by the community of highly literary writers, but Child 44 doesn’t belong in the lofty company of books like Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, A.S. Byatt’s Possession or Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Child 44 isn’t serious literature that challenges the reader and makes him think. Its good guys are too good and its bad guys are too bad for that as is its pat and contrived ending. It doesn’t illuminate some dark aspect of life. It just whiles away the hours and that’s about it. It’s not nuanced in lovely shades of gray; it's stark black and white. And backing up to that pat ending one last time, I wonder if Smith realizes that he did leave one thread untied? After Stalin has died, after Vasili, too, is dead, after the murders have been solved, the orphans taken care of, the good guys rewarded and the bad guys punished, after Leo and Raisa return to Moscow, Leo’s poor parents are still languishing in that tiny, frigid apartment. It just doesn’t seem fair.


Recommended: No. Read Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, instead or Robert Harris’s Fatherland, and if you’ve read them, move on to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Child 44 really isn’t worth the time spent with it.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Bang on. I just finished reading Child 44 and I was scratching my head to remember the last time I felt so utterly cheated out of my money. This is a writer who can earn millions by writing this dreck? Nominated for a Booker??

I had to force myself to read beyond the first chapter as reading his prose was like chewing on a piece of cardboard.

I picked this book out because I liked Fatherland, I had a choice to buy Gorky Park (I didnt because I read some other book by Cruz Smith which was really bad) and then I finally wasted my money on this one.

Really any Tom Dick and Harry can become a writer these days.

Literary Corner Cafe said...

How true. I know I won't read the next thing he writes. The Booker nomination was a shock.

Thank you for the comment.