Although I’m probably an intellectual snob in some ways, I’m quite happy to admit I enjoy a good thriller, particularly during term time when I get so exhausted that my bedtime reading has to be fairly undemanding. And given my fascination with all things Russian, I like reading about Russia in my spare time as well — intelligent books during the summer (this year, mostly art history), but usually by about week 3 of term such things are beyond me. So I’ve been keeping a copy of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 (Simon & Schuster, 2008) for this very moment: what could be better than a novel about a serial killer in the Soviet Union? I know something about the case the novel is based on, having seen Citizen X, which is actually a rather good film. The reviews of Child 44 have been pretty good, and it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2008, so I had high hopes.
And yes, you’ve guessed it, they were dashed. It is in many ways an engaging read (though hardly Booker material, you would have thought), the gradual revelation of the central mystery is done well, and it does have an overall Russian flavour which makes it quite fun. But…
It started with the usual gripes, such as the use of the word ‘Gulags’ (see my post Gulag: Note to Writers and Editors (1)), and an occasional and annoying habit of throwing in Russian words and titles without any explanation for the non-Russian readers who will presumably make up the vast majority of the audience.
Then there are a few factual inaccuracies, one of the worst being the scene when the hero Leo Demidov and his wife are being sent off to the ‘Gulags’, where we read of ‘converted cattle carts’ and ‘several thousand prisoners on the platform’ of the railway station (p. 376). But this supposedly takes place on 11 July 1953, and there were no mass transportations at that time — it is well known that the Gulag began to be dismantled within days of Stalin’s death (in March of that year, about a third of the way through the novel), and never again operated on the same scale.
The original case took place between 1978 and 1990, and moving the novel back to the end of the Stalin era just seems to make it less plausible. Take the moral journey of Demidov, a dashing and idealistic MGB officer (yeah, right) who sees the light when he realizes innocent people are being arrested. What took him so long, we wonder? Can it really be that this is the first time he’s been involved in the interrogation of innocent citizens? Were there any idealists left by 1953? Surely, such as they were, they all perished in 1937? And another problem: even in the late Stalin era, an officer in Demidov’s position would hardly have been handled with such caution or given a chance to prove his innocence. The problem seems to be that the author wants the absolutist (although regularly changing) ideology of the Stalin period to coexist with the moral and political uncertainty of the immediate post-Stalin years, but the result is just a mishmash which doesn’t make much sense.
However, what really ruins the novel is the denouement, when the killer’s motivation is revealed (I won’t spoil it, in case you still want to read it). There is a logic to his crimes, but it’s insufficient; clearly he’s insane, and the origins of that are explained, but there’s still a gaping hole between that and the question of why he starts to commit these murders. And unlike in Crime and Punishment, say, where the gap between the motivation and the crime is the starting point for the psychological exploration of Raskol’nikov, in Child 44 it’s the end of reflection. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison. I don’t expect my bedtime crime novels to be Dostoevskian masterpieces (indeed, that would entirely defeat their function in my life), but I don’t like negligent writing whatever time of night it is.