Monthly Book Review by Ajarn Scott
August 2008

Child 44

by Tom Rob Smith, Grand Central Publishing, 439 pp.

One of the most enjoyable things about good, literary fiction is the complex relationship and interaction between characters, what the characters discover about themselves and each other. Call this the human depth factor, if you will; this is the kind of book we read to understand life better, the kind of novel that after a few years may even end labeled as literature.  We read this kind of book in a quiet room where we can sit when we are through and contemplate the meaning of what we have just read.  A good plot in such a work of art is a benefit, of course, but often seems secondary to the more meaningful interaction of characters and the insights we might gain from meeting them and exploring their psyches.    

This human depth factor is often missing from mystery, or what is often also called detective or crime fiction.  The characters in crime fiction often seem all cut from the same two dimensional cloth: the rebel cop good-guy who bucks the corrupt system, the criminal and the cops in the corrupt system (often one in the same) and the women.  There seem to be  two types of women in crime novels: the tart and the street-smart dame, and both usually come across as flawed or otherwise weak, especially in vintage American-noir detective fiction from the 1930s through the 1950s (Dashiell Hammett, James Ellroy, etc.).  Sexism (and racism and a lot of other –isms) are unapologetically present in vintage crime writing.  Newer mystery authors seek to eliminate some of these grittier aspects and to give their characters more depth.  Sometimes they succeed but more often they fail.  After all, the grit and perversion – the very fact that the normal rules and niceties of society have been trampled and abused – is part of the appeal of the crime novel.  When crime authors attempt toward more literary aspirations and fail they can be forgiven as long as they don’t mess up one key aspect of the genre: the plot.     

The main attraction of crime fiction, of course, is a fast moving plot and snappy, quick dialog – the stuff that makes you unable to put the book down – even for a moment – even in a loud, moving train full of yakking passengers, garbled announcements or other distractions.  In fact, this is the type of book that you might finally look up from reading on the Skytrain only to realize you’re three stations past where you wanted to disembark.

I’m a greedy reader.  I want all of the above in one book.  Oh, I’ll read both: Moby Dick or Miss Marple can both liven up my hobby reading hours.  But I am always on the look out for any books out there that combine the insights of good, literary fiction with the rip-roaring un-put-down-able-ness of excellent crime writing.  Are there any?  Yes.  And Child 44, the first novel by English author Tom Rob Smith, is a current offering in this genre we could label “literary crime fiction.”  This book has complex characters with depth and a plot that takes off from page one and doesn’t let up until the book ends on page 439.

The book is set in Russia and the first scene takes place during the cold, foodless winter of 1933.  A woman sees the first small animal to appear in a long time – a thin cat – and sends her two boys out to trap it and bring it home for dinner.  Only one boy returns.

Fast forward twenty years to 1953:  Satlin is in power and the MGB, or State Security Force (later to re-named as the KGB), keep order.  Through use of setting and scene, Smith allows the reader to experience the paranoia, the fact no one can be trusted.  Smith’s narrator informs: “Those who appear the most trustworthy deserve the most suspicion” and “The duty of an investigator was to scratch away at innocence until guilt was uncovered”.  The characters behave accordingly.  Yet the reader is not just reading about what Russia was like during the Stalin era, Smith’s prose transports us there, let’s us look over our own shoulder’s to see who’s lurking and watching our every move.

Leo Demidov, an idealistic MGB agent who believes fully in the system, is sent to investigate the death of a boy along a set of railroad tracks just outside Moscow.  The government has decided the death is an accident – after all, there are no murders in a perfect, communist society.  That kind of behavior exists only in the decadent, capitalistic west.  Leo believes the initial report suggesting accidental death and is sent to calm down the boy’s father – a colleague – and to convince him to tow the party line.  The father, you see, believes the boy to have been murdered.  After meeting the father, family and local community – and having some shocking evidence presented to him – Leo is also no longer certain if the death is an accident or not, though he convinces everyone to accept the government verdict of accidental death.  To not accept this would result in accusations of treason, thus bringing the state system down on any dissenter, even someone who works for the state system.  Which is precisely what happens to Leo – the lie eats at him and affects the way he handles the investigation and does his job in general, which gets noticed.  Suddenly he is on the other end of an investigation, his own.  He is given a no-win situation as a test: he must investigate his own wife, a beautiful school teacher named Raisa.  If he reports she’s a solid citizen, then he is probably lying to protect her.  If he reports her as a traitor, then he is guilty by association.  He begins to experience the “other side” of the system.  It is this conflict, and the conflict between the characters (as he investigates Raisa he begins to question her initial attraction to him – if one existed at all) that give the book its literary depth.

Leo’s life spirals predictably down.  He goes from being rich and respected to poor and hated, his parents lose their status and – even worse in Russia – their apartment, and his wife, it’s complicated.  The results of this downward spiral and the investigation cause Leo and Raisa to be accused of treason and now they must expect the worst punishment possible, but … Stalin’s death, used as a convenient plot device, causes chaos within the system that allows them to escape death and the Gulags.  Instead, Leo is demoted to the lowest civil servant position possible and they are both shipped – together – to a small town in the Ural Mountains to live in their disgrace.  Once there, Leo discovers there have been one or two deaths near the railroad tracks similar in circumstance to the death in Moscow and he begins to realize that there may be a serial killer on the loose.  He realizes at the same time, of course, that if the state has punished him for thinking that the death of his colleague’s son was murder rather than an accident, then they will probably like the idea of a serial killer even less.  He must, on his own, bring the killer to justice … before he kills again.  He gets an unlikely ally: forced to live together in exile, he and Raisa begin to come to know and understand each other, perhaps for the first time, and she supports him in his quest for justice.

At this point the book, which has been fast paced all along, takes off into total suspense and detective mode as Leo and Raisa work against time and the government to bring the killer to justice.  They discover he has murdered children – 44 in all – in many places, all murders taking place near railroad tracks just outside of each city or town.  (The book is loosely based on the true story of serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who terrorized Russia in the late 1970s by murdering 52 women and children.)  In a surprising twist near the end, Leo and Raisa also discover … no, I won’t tell you that.  You’ll have to read the book (available at Kinokunia) yourself to find out the rest.  You won’t be disappointed.

Scott Humphries, 28 July 2008 Bangkok