This book comes with a bit of baggage. A debut novel, and thriller no less, set in Stalinist Russia. Its publishers gave it a massive publicity campaign, and got it longlisted for the 2008 Booker. Instant controversy – thrillers can’t be literary can they?
Well yes they can, you only have to think of John Le Carre or Graham Greene, but neither of them made the Booker. Actually, upon doing a little research, I found out that Le Carre doesn’t permit his books to be entered. The reviews for Child 44 have been mixed too, with most tending to one extreme or the other. Now the dust’s died down a little, it was time to read it. So what’s it all about? …
Leo Demidev is a war hero, and rising star of the MGB in Moscow. He lives and breathes the party line. While not approving of the extreme practices of some of his colleagues, he is very aware of the privileges the job gives him and his beautiful wife Raisa. Then the child of a colleague is found dead by the railway tracks, obviously murdered by a psychopath, the crime is conveniently put upon a local simpleton who knew the girl rather than be investigated – all acknowledged crimes must be solved – failure is not an option in the regime. Leo is sent to tell his colleague that the culprit has been caught, and finds himself in conflict with the lie.
So he starts to investigate himself and this lands him in trouble, he is told that his wife is suspected as a spy and that he must investigate and denounce her. He refuses, and is demoted and exiled to work in the militia in a remote town, where he finds more child murders with a similar modus operandi have occurred. He has to find the murderer, and thus begins the real contest between Leo and the regime, with more ups and downs than a game of snakes and ladders.
Having finished it this morning, I find myself unable to have any extreme feelings about it. It has many good things – all things Russian have an immediate allure to me and I do love a good thriller. It also had a degree of ultraviolence that was almost entirely directed to bring home the brutality of the Stalinist regime to you. The drawback was that at 470 pages (in hardback), it was far too long, there was too much ruminating and pensiveness and you needed the plot to return and give you a kick to wake you up. I also found the use of dashed sentences in italics to indicate dialogue rather than conventional speech marks a mild irritant. Yet I can see that cut down to bones of the plot, it will make a great movie, (Ridley Scott has optioned it).
What I couldn’t get far from my brain though, the entire time I was reading it, was Martin Cruz Smith’s Renko novels, and the similarity between Leo’s good cop against the system troubles with parts of Gorky Park, which I hugely enjoyed re-reading a couple of years ago.
My final verdict then – a competent debut and a good but long read for Russian thriller lovers. 6/10
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Source: Own copy. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, S&S paperback, 484 pages
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