Thursday, January 31, 2008

From Russia with Death

Books preceded by hype usually put me off. And many, if not most, heavily promoted debut works never live up to their public relations budgets. But 2008 is shaping up to be an exceptional year for crime-fiction introductions. First, we had Stieg Larsson’s stunning The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Quercus). Now we have Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith, which I originally heard about only in hushed rumors, spread during last year’s London Book Fair. After the excitement of speaking with Dean Koontz via Margaret Atwood’s LongPen device, though, Smith’s novel slipped my mind.

Then came a post from British literary agent Simon Trewin. He explained that the troubled literary agency PFD, which has lately been in the news almost as much as its authors, had signed the promising Smith to its stable:
PFD fielded a large team in the International Rights Centre with Tom Rob Smith’s thriller CHILD 44 scooping the pool as the hottest book of the fair with a large number of deals being done worldwide. Ridley Scott snapped up the film rights 48 hours before the fair began and PFD’s new Adult Foreign Rights Director, Jessica Craig, and Tom Rob Smith’s literary agent, James Gill, were soon besieged by publishers keen to read and bid for this exceptional debut.
Still, I remained skeptical, if for no other reason than that the previously unknown Smith is a couple of years shy of his 30th birthday. It took a conversation with Lee Child (Bad Luck and Trouble) to make me more optimistic. Child had provided a complimentary blurb for Smith’s first novel (“An amazing debut--rich, different, fully formed, mature ... and thrilling.”), and his enthusiasm for this forthcoming work was infectious.

Well, having now read Child 44, I’m willing to say--oh so subtly--that it is a brilliant debut novel that had me clutching it with both hands as if my life depended on reading it in a single night. (How’s that for subtlety?) What makes this book so bewitching? First of all, its backdrop: the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin’s cruel 20th-century regime, during which the Russian people were enslaved by poverty and paranoia. This is a most interesting canvas against which to pitch the fictional hunt for a child-murdering serial slayer, because the Soviet state refuses to credit the existence of any such crime amid its Communist nirvana. Secondly, we can’t forget the characters in this tale, especially Leo Demidov, a respected secret policeman, and his wife, Raisa, who find themselves on the wrong end of state politics when the case of a murdered child turns to obsession. They discover that a death on a railway track was not the accident that local authorities concluded. Nor is it an isolated case, for a trail of child murder snakes along the USSR’s railway system, showing the work of a seriously deranged mind, or minds. Finally, Child 44 is remarkable for how Smith portrays the cruelty of the instruments of the state oppressing its people with the threat of the Gulag, and contrasts all of that against the compassion and strength of the human spirit.

In this story loosely based on the case of prolific Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, “the Red Ripper,” we find Leo and Raisa exiled from their privileged home in Moscow to the freezing hinterlands. After an operation to capture a Soviet veterinary surgeon (and suspected spy) goes terribly wrong, Leo finds himself under scrutiny from his superiors, due in large measure to professional jealously on the part of a subordinate, the banally evil Vasili Ilyich Nikitin. The brutality of this book is shocking, but it’s placed into context of the terrible extremes of the Stalinist era. Concealed in the darkness, Smith shows a warmth and insight into the good within people who struggle against tyranny.

Child 44 feels very well researched, but the level of detail is not thrown in your face; rather, it’s painted subtly into the plot, enriching the narrative and giving fresh dimension to the hunt for a serial murderer. At some times this yarn is harrowing, at other times terrifying. And on occasion, it brings you to tears. I was concerned that the ambition of the book’s first half might not be sustained in the second half, but my concerns were for naught. The tension and terror of Child 44 is striated evenly throughout the narrative, all the way till the chilling and satisfying dénouement. This debut work might be looked at as part Martin Cruz Smith, part Thomas Harris, part Robert Harris, with a smattering of George Orwell thrown in. I really do not want to reveal anymore, for fear of spoiling one of this year’s greatest literary treats.

In a piece about Ridley Scott optioning Child 44 for the big screen, Variety reports that Tom Rob Smith’s first novel will not be his last:
Set in Stalinist Russia, [the] storyline revolves around an officer in the secret police who is framed by a colleague for treason. On the run with his emotionally estranged wife, he stumbles upon a series of child killings and launches his own rogue investigation, even though it means risking his own capture.

Scott Free president Michael Costigan and senior VP of production Michael Ellenberg brought in the project. At Fox 2000, Carla Hacken helped drive the deal.

Smith, a Cambridge graduate, has written for several British television shows, including “Doctors” and “Dream Team.” He also penned the story for Cambodia’s first-ever soap opera for the BBC World Service Trust.
Considering that author Smith is British, I’m pleased to see that Child 44 will be published on this side of the Atlantic (by Simon & Schuster) in March, more than a month before it goes on sale in the States (where it’s being published by Grand Central). It will be a nail-biting wait for the Americans, because this debut is one beautifully wild ride. For once, believe the hype.

(Author photo courtesy of C.J. Bauer/Simon & Schuster UK)


Anonymous said...

Hi Ali,

It sounds as if Tom writes a little like Alan Furst.

Furst obviously does a great deal of research, but never lets the details that give colour, depth, texture and atmosphere take over or weigh down the plot.

I'll add Tom Rob Smith to my list. Many thanks.


Ali Karim said...

Yes Ann

You are right, but his writing is 'different' also - By the way, just in from Germany -

"CHILD 44 has sold 40,000 copies in hardcover in Germany (where it was first published) in its first 3 weeks of selling and is at Number 3 on their national bestseller list."

This book really is THIS BLOODY GOOD


Anonymous said...

Plllleaaase take it to the big screen, pretty please!

Anonymous said...

Everything it's hyped to be, and more. "Read" it via audio book - had to sit in my car in parking lot with air conditioner running to finish it.

Unknown said...

Didn't you think the big reveal on page 400 was a bit hard to swallow?

I said "Oh please!" out loud myself.

I can see why the screen rights were bought up so quickly; the reading it is like reading a screenplay. The authour does thank Robert Towne, screenwriter, for his help.

Give me Alan Furst any day.

Anonymous said...

The ending was stupid, a few too many miaculous escapes, and I think he stole the idea from the show Dexter. Started out good, though.