I’ve decided to take a brief detour from reading nonfiction Russia books and shift over to lighter works of fiction for a while. In particular, I’m trying to rekindle my interest in the political thriller genre. My feelings about modern espionage/int’l crime thrillers set in Russia (as written elsewhere): tl;dr, I’ve read many; basically a persistent combination of outdated stereotypes, factual inaccuracies, genre-specific tropes and Cold-Warrior attitudes keep me from enjoying many of the post-Soviet ones. I’m so jaded, I know.
But I’ve also caught word of some recent thrillers trying to break the traditional mold: stories told from the Russian perspective, stories in which the U.S. isn’t always victorious, stories not simplified to a battle of “good” vs. “evil”, and even stories of (uneasy) cooperation against a shared enemy. Child 44 appeared to be one of those, well, novel novels*. And it had critical acclaim. However, reviewing this book was made more difficult by one little fact.
The story takes place during Stalin’s era.
Yup. Regardless of what side of the geographic divide you’re on, the topic of Stalinism and Stalin’s Russia still attracts controversy and debate. Inevitably the author’s personal opinions of the USSR and Stalinism do bubble up between the lines of prose, but for the sake of keeping the waters calm, I’m not going to elaborate on them here. I had to turn off the part of my brain concerned with Russian studies and historical (in)accuracy, and silence that tiny voice that was repeatedly asking “might I be opening a can of worms by choosing to review this?”.
After reading (and critiquing) so much nonfiction, adjusting to read for pure escapism was tricky. But I was successful, and reading Child 44 turned out to be very, very interesting.
Set in Moscow in 1953, “when Communism controlled every aspect of daily life”, and government officials believed that “there is no crime,” Child 44 recreates the turmoil in the life of a State Security Force official who begins, reluctantly, to question the “facts” before him. Leo Stepanovich Demidov, working for MGB (Internal Security), is drawn into an investigation of the death of a four-year-old, supposedly struck and killed by a train. The child’s family believes he was murdered, but Leo conveys a not-so-subtle warning to them not to question the state’s findings regarding the child’s death.
Because each community certifies its own causes of death, Leo can only regard the death of this child as a single instance of a mysterious death. When he is relocated to a more remote village and discovers that there has been a similar death there, however, he begins surreptitiously to investigate. Always, he must hide his reasons for asking for information. He cannot afford to be labeled as a doubter–he has a wife and parents to protect. Soon he has created a map showing dozens of similar crimes.
As Leo is trying to identify a serial killer, he must also deal with internal politics within the security service, including his own demotion and loss of reputation. A fellow MGB officer will stop at nothing to bring him down. At the same time, however, Leo is still a party man, and he plays by the book in his other investigations, including the interrogation, beating, and eventual execution of two men he knows to be innocent victims of the system. Torture, the use of informants, constant spying on each other, and the manipulation of records, are public policy–“Terror protects the Revolution,” the party believes.
Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel is filled with carefully drawn and vivid characters, all of whom convey their complex personalities within the structure of their Communist society. His creation of Moscow life feels realistic, and his inclusion of maxims which could be part of a communist handbook adds to the sense of realism–and horror. Even though some of the scenes were gruesome, I couldn’t put the book down.
Pretty outstanding for a first novel.
The 2015 film, on the other hand…
Bloated, scatterbrained, tedious, uneven and sometimes preposterous. And despite the entire story taking place in Soviet Russia, everyone speaks in pidgin English with thick Russian accents. It’s a farce.
I’ll be reviewing book 2 of the Leo Demidov series, The Secret Speech, in the coming days.
★ ★ ★ ★
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. Pub.2009 by Gran Central Publishing. Mass Market Paperback, 509 pages. ISBN13: 9780446402392
*The concept has likely been done before (see Gorky Park), but unlike Gorky Park, Child 44 has not a hint of Cold-War international espionage in it. And boy do I appreciate that.