So. How does a thriller about a serial child-murderer, set in Stalinist Russia, resemble a little girl with a curl right in the middle of her forehead? Well, I just finished Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, and when it is good, it is very very good, and when it is bad it is horrid.
Let’s start with the good parts, of which there were quite a few. Teresa wrote a review of this novel back when it was making the rounds (and it was nominated for a Booker Prize, good Lord) and so I won’t go into great detail, but the premise is that Leo Demidov, an apparatchik of the MGB, the state police, discovers evidence of a crime that shouldn’t exist. Under Stalin’s regime, the only crime is crime against the state: other crimes, such as homicide, perversion, etc. are the acts of “undesirables,” corrupted by the West or by mental illness. When the state says crime exists, it exists. When it says it does not exist, the crime disappears. But these child-murders — ritualistic killings, the mouth stuffed with bark — won’t go away.
Smith creates a fascinating atmosphere. What should an officer do, if he understands a terrible crime simultaneously as an affront to the state in which he passionately believes, and as an affront to humanity? There is also the added danger to him and his family: if he goes about this the wrong way, everyone he loves could be persecuted, sent to the gulags, killed. Demidov has a conscience, but it’s a conscience that has been shaped, blunted, forced into channels by constant propaganda and fear. He’s the avatar of an entire nation that’s lived this way for years. Denounce others and you’ll be rewarded, whether or not you’re speaking the truth. Keep information quiet and you’ll be punished. Smith turns his lens on the toll this takes on Demidov’s marriage — his wife, Raisa, was a wholly believable character, bitter and strong — and on his health. Watching the painful evolution of Demidov’s self-awareness was the best part of the book.
I have to say, however, that when the novel became a thriller, it lost me. The “twist” toward the end didn’t earn its keep (it was insufficiently structured, totally implausible — Russia is a very large country — and I saw it coming half a book away.) The flight and pursuit was over the top: I don’t have to have my main characters sliding under trains equipped with hooks in order to believe they are in serious trouble, and without giving too many details, there was a serious credibility issue in this part of the story. Demidov’s assistant, Vasili, was a MacGuffin of rage and hostility that was, as far as I could tell, totally unmotivated. And the prose was nothing to write home about: at best it was fine, and at worst it made basic grammatical errors. I found myself wishing Smith had written a novel about police work in Stalinist Russia and left the thriller out of it. Perhaps the Booker nominators squinted past the thriller bits? Perhaps they are all too high-minded to read thrillers?
In any case, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I hated the book. By no means! But don’t forget the little girl with the curl. If you can look past the horrid parts, the rest of it — the exploration of conscience and loyalty, the interest in what could cause a murderer to thrive in a closed society — is very very good indeed.