Book Review: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Book Review: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

June 9, 2010

There aren’t many pieces of modern fiction part-set in Ukraine and only a few of those address the issue of the Holodomor. But Child 44 scores on both counts. The premise of the book is that a murderer wants to draw attention to himself and so commits forty four heinous murders of children in Russia and Ukraine (in Kharkov, Gorlovka, Zaporoshy, Kramatorsk, and Kyiv).

According to the plot, almost nobody within the Soviet security apparatus can believe that these crimes are work of a single man, because that would imply a rejection of communist values and, therefore, a failure of the state.

The contention raises some issues not dissimilar to ones I raise in Among the Ukrainians. For example the sale of church candles was considered illegal in the Soviet Union, whereas prostitution was not. The line of thinking was that prostitution could not be made illegal because it could not exist (at least not permanently) in a utopian society (see the chapter, “Sex and the Soviets”).

Child 44 is an exciting read that is in—or certainly close to— the can’t put down category. Soviet society in the 1950’s has hardly been tapped by modern fiction writers and it offers a rich seam of material. In particularly it feeds the curiosity about what lay behind the iron curtain, and provides insights into the final years of Stalin’s control of society and of the transition to the Khrushchev era. The period is politically intriguing.

(I should point out that the plot is not original. In many aspects Child 44 follows closely the real life story of Ukrainian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered 53 women and children between 1978-1990.)

The pace of the storyline is fast and the sentences are terse and spartan, conjuring up the greyness and staidness of Soviet society in the 1950’s. The pay-off is that there is very little description of either people or places. Characters lack dimension. We never learn if the main character is tall or short, clean-shaven or hirsute, broadly built or thin, for example. Description is sparse to the point of being absent; the hero uses his gun on numerous occasions but we’re never told even basic information, such as what sort it is. Some critics have suggested that this style of writing—lacking dimension— is more akin to a film plot rather than a piece of fiction, and it is certainly true that shortly after the book’s publication the leading actors of a soon-to-appear film were being cast. Tom Rob Smith has not hidden the fact that he wanted the book to be made into a film; a key inspiration was the TV series 24.

The author’s descriptions of places and events are similarly sparse, to the point, even, of wondering if he has actually been to Russia. And he almost certainly didn’t have the final text read by a native Russian/Ukrainian or expert. The book is punctuated by errors, whether he’s referring to Lubyanka procedures, sausages, vetinary clinics, or Kolkhoz (collective farms). And on at least one occasion he has a character (Vasili) appearing in a city (Voualsk) that he could not physically get to in the time frame required by the plot. Most readers are not aware of these points of detail and so they cannot detract from the novel, and, as I said, it is an enjoyable, well-paced read.

The one thing I did find unsatisfactory—and where I can raise a point that I’ve not seen made anywhere else— concerns the central plot and should be relevant to all readers.

If the intention of the killer was to attract the attention of a man high up in the Soviet hierarchy, why did he kill only 4 of the forty four children in Moscow? The other forty children were killed hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from the capital, yet, the odds were overwhelming that this important man would work in Moscow. The centralised planning system of the Soviet Union would have meant that it would have been easier for the killer to get a job which involved commuting to Moscow than to any other city.

Add to this, as I mentioned earlier, that no one in Soviet society was likely to believe that these murders—across a geographical area larger than the size of France—were likely to be the work of a single man, the plot suddenly becomes very illogical.

On reflection, I can only think that author felt that using the Soviet Union’s geography, and the shenanigans of a chase around Russia, adds interest to the plot. For me the contorted plot is weaker as a result, and it doesn’t do full justice to the rich potential of the book’s setting – the 1950s in the Soviet Union.

Child 44 has sold more than one million copies and for a writer’s first book that is nothing short of incredible. Less than a 1% chance, I’m sure. So, I’m heartened that despite the errors in research and the weak plot the book has been so successful. My own meagre effort, Among the Ukrainians, also contains errors, and though it’s supported by a much more modest marketing budget, I now hold out the hope I can sell a reasonable fraction of Tom Rob Smith’s number of books sold.

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