The atmosphere Tom Rob Smith creates in Child 44 may or may not capture what life really was like under Soviet Stalinism. Some readers might conclude it sails close to the wind of propaganda. Reading it simultaneously to Alan’s Bulloch’s work on Stalin and Stalinism tends to challenge that.
The author claims that ‘Soviet Russia is itself a character in the book – a peculiar blend of horror and absurdity.’ It works. Crime fiction situated in the West – Denmark is perhaps an exception - lacks the consuming broodiness that seems to go so smoothly with the turf when a crime novel is placed in the Stalinist East where an omnipresent grey provides the backdrop. The landscape is desolate. Smith’s construction of predatory suspicion, soaking through like persistent drizzle, succeeds in creating the tension which keeps this crime novel throbbing from start to finish.
Hunger, drudgery, cold, and paranoia are the remorseless companions that stalk this narrative. They assemble everywhere, often in the company of each other. Deference, acquiescence and fear are their buddies. The cowering characters of Child 44 are so removed from the fighting Soviet citizenry of John Erikson’s splendid history of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ as to be unrecognisable. By the time a spirit of resistance is introduced by Smith the narrative loses some of its credibility, the blend too awkward.
Leo Demidov is a secret police officer in the MGB, married to a beautiful woman which adds to the sense of envy and resentment his colleagues harbour. He dismisses as an accident the death of a child and later comes to the conclusion that he was wrong. The envy and paranoia of his colleagues do not make his task easy. They are spiteful and vindictive. Life is cheap. State ideology-mongering blinds police operatives to facts on the ground. Crime of this genre does not happen in the Soviet socialist paradise. Anything that might suggest it does is Western propaganda, and the source for such a suggestion, rather than the killer of children, is most at risk from arrest.
The society of Child 44 is one where even marriage may not be done for love. A wife might be more in loathe with her husband than in love, matrimony being a means to some end other than wedded bliss. Dutifully practiced there seems no natural place in this novel for something as intense as the orgasmic union ascribed to Mellors and Connie in Lady Chatterly’s Lover.
Child 44 has been compared to Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, a book I read almost 30 years ago but did not enjoy. Archangel by Robert Harris, fresher in the memory, might offer a better point of comparison. While the plot comes over as forced in that events are pushed together rather than being drawn so, the quality of the story manages to prevail even if ultimately it might work better on the screen than in print.
Twists aplenty, Child 44 is a gripping tale about a twisted society.
Tom Rob Smith, 2009, Child 44. Pocket Books: London