Books

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Michael Noble

As various characters pull together against huge odds and the worst imaginable circumstances, Smith’s central themes of hope and redemption shine through


Child 44

Publisher: Grand Central
ISBN: 0446402389
Author: Tom Rob Smith
Price: $24.99
Length: 448
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2008-04
Amazon

As the beleaguered people of Burma could testify (in secret at least), a state that lives in denial of the condition of its people is a very dangerous thing, indeed. For the authoritarian ruler, any failure in the system is intolerable. To admit that the system cannot explain everything; that some things are simply beyond its control, leaves an unacceptable chink in its armor. Where failures occur -- and they always occur -- it’s much simpler to deny that they even exist. Or, to put it another way, better to live in knee-deep in it than be seen working a shovel.

State denial forms the backdrop to Child 44, a brilliant and gripping thriller from debut novelist Tom Rob Smith. Set in Soviet Russia in 1953, the story follows the pursuit of a prolific child killer whose crimes span the country along its network of railway lines. These highly ritualised slayings are carried out with near-impunity, for officially speaking, crimes such as rape, theft and murder no longer exist. Such transgressions are the symptoms of an indulgent and excessive capitalist system, and should not occur in a workers’ paradise, where inequality has been eradicated. Any such crimes that do occur are dismissed as accidents or the work of anti-Soviet elements.

Kicking against this system is Leo Demidov, Nazi killing hero of the Great Patriotic War turned MGB agent. Resourceful, able and strong, Demidov is at first glance a classic thriller hero. A once proud and loyal servant of the State, he is as happy to dismiss the claims of murder as anyone else. That is, until the machinations of the State turn on him and he begins to see it for the empty lie that it is. Stripped of his position and exiled deep into the Soviet Union, Demidov finds a new sense of purpose in tracking down the child killer, even though to call a murder by its name marks him as anathema.

Pursuing Leo is ambitious MSB agent, Vasili Nikitin. Under the regime’s philosophy, Nikitin is the good guy, stopping at nothing to catch a rogue officer. An effective villain, his sinister smile is nevertheless an unfortunate lapse into cliché, which stands out in a book which so carefully avoids them elsewhere.

Smith has previously worked as a scriptwriter, and elements of this art have crept through to his new life as a novelist. Dialog is rendered in italicized lines, which lends clarity to the page, while each scene is carefully laid out like those of a movie. It will come as no surprise to the reader that the screen rights have already been sold. Nevertheless, no matter how cinematically written a book may be, there remain some things that will always work better on the page than on the screen, and it is a mark of Smith’s precocious talent that he uses the form of the novel so well here.

Ultimately, the real villain is not any single person, but the State itself. The pernicious influence of the Stalinist system permeates every page, as it does the lives of the characters. The need to be seen as a good Soviet brings with it unimaginable pressures which affect every facet of life. The strain it places on the Demidovs’ marriage is a recurring theme throughout the story, and provides Child 44 with some of its most affecting moments.

It is in the depiction of humanity that Child 44 really succeeds. Running through the story is Demidov’s determination to do the right thing, for the slain children, for his wife and for himself. For all its power, the State cannot diminish that innate spark, nor can it remove the simple and honest ties that bind us all together. As various characters pull together against huge odds and the worst imaginable circumstances, Smith’s central themes of hope and redemption shine through. The State may perpetuate, but so does its people, as flawed and as genuine as ever. And ultimately, there can be no denying that.

7

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image