Smith, Tom Rob (2009), Child 44, Pocket
In the back of my edition of Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel Child 44, set in Stalinist Russia, there’s an interview with the author. In it, he’s asked about the books he’s read in preparation and he says he’s read countless books and that he hasn’t “come across a bad book”. A decade ago, falling in love with Mandelstam, I have read a couple of books on the period, some good, but certainly a good deal of tosh as well. Smith’s reply indicates a certain indiscriminate appetite and a limited understanding of what he read. Now, this may be unfair, but the rest of the novel bears this judgment out, it fails on almost every level, but the most annoying aspect of it is the propaganda; after all, the novel presents a one-sided, almost hysterical view of not just Stalinism but of Soviet socialism as a whole. For all its flaws, I must admit that I was intrigued at times, I had fun at times, although none of the fun outweighed the sheer annoyance that Tom Rob Smith’s novel, that was longlisted for the Booker, has already been followed by a sequel (The Secret Speech) and the rights to which have been optioned by Ridley Scott, heaped on this overweight reviewer.
Smith takes the case of Andrei Chikatilo, a serial killer who had a long and prosperous career as a murderer in Soviet Russia because ideological constraints made a hunt for him problematic. Serial killers were a phenomenon of the decadent West, a symptom of the sickness of that society. By the very nature of Soviet Russia, such a crime would not have been possible, by definition, and so for decades, Chikatilo wasn’t apprehended. Smith doesn’t have decades, he isn’t really interested in the workings of a system, so he cut the story down to a smaller, more manageable unit, that takes place shortly before and after Stalin’s death. The first fourth of the novel contains the best sections and holds the most promise, the rest is basically a prolonged let-down. It is a good idea for Smith to have taken his time with the actual investigation which doesn’t get off the ground until at least halfway through the book.
The first half is almost completely spent with an exploration of the police procedural. Smith doesn’t have the patience nor the analytic mind to make a clean job of this. He does not provide the necessary detail, nor does he have the necessary language at his disposal to be evocative instead of just stereotypical. Smith hands us a few archetypes, a stereotypical bad guy, a good guy, an honest worker, and so on. Smith wants us to understand that the government is evil (actually, we are offered two serial killers, the real one, and the Soviet government; which could be, structurally, a good idea, as it could double the suspense and tension but is not handled well and we get neither suspense nor tension), so as the easiest solution he creates characters that are just evil, with no redeeming features and the longer he keeps them in the story even as that story turns away from them, the more transparent and cheap these efforts become. He dedicates a whole scene to the bad guy’s musings about the boredom of not having enough evil deeds to do, and do not think I am simplifying things here. It’s as risible as that. But it is a classic thriller, the reader who expects well-rounded characters is a fool. He’s not getting them, but therein lies much of the fun of classic thrillers.
And Smith, in the first fourth, puts his readers genre expectations to good use. As we watch the protagonist, Leo Demidov, torture a man who’s suspected of being a spy, we know that Leo’s going to be tortured himself; as we see Leo turn the wheels of Soviet bureaucracy, we know that Leo’s going to be thrown under those same wheels later on; as we see Leo cover up a crime that doesn’t exist because it should not exist, we know he’s going to have to confront a police officer of the same kind himself; and finally, as we follow him, breathlessly, on a manhunt, we know he is going to be hunted himself. If there is an unpardonable fault to the book, its raising these expectations – and then, at the end, disappointing every single of them. All of the things do come up, but they do not work, none of them. I have found myself looking at the book incredulously, asking: was that it? This is irritating the first and maybe the second time, after that it becomes both annoying and frustrating. Writing thrillers is a craft. I have pointed out on this blog that this craft is not to be underestimated and that especially so-called literary writers often fail at mastering its most basic elements. They tend to have other saving graces, say, the writing or the characters or the thinking.
Tom Rob Smith has none of those. He’s a thriller writer, square and simple, but sadly, not a very good one. Of all the failings in craftsmanship, one towers above them all. The whole book is based on a risky conceit. It’s risky because it asks the reader to swallow a huge coincidence, which I won’t reveal here. With a conceit such as this, the result could be inventive and edgy or they could be risible and pathetic. I had a hard time convincing myself of this but this idea of Smith’s actually has potential, but his treatment of it is so ham-handed, that it falls squarely on the side of pathetic and risible. At times, the inept plotting made me suspect that the novel had been written by two or three different writers who did not communicate with each other while writing. Or one writer with a serious case of Alzheimer’s. And, oh, the prose…this book started life as a screenplay and I could not help but wonder whether the thriller would work better on the big screen. It’s certainly not helping the story that Smith is a awkward writer. He’s sometimes astonishingly inept, but not always. The general impression, however, is that language is an impediment to him, that he’d rather not write prose, but shuffle around pictures and scenes.
Additionally, Smith, as his colleague Jonathan Littell, is clearly of the opinion that if the subject matter is ‘heavy’ enough, other things matter less, people will be affected, shocked, moved, and won’t look at the prose or actual suspense in the novel. The insane amount of praise lavished on this book clearly confirms his expectations. According the the blurbs in my copy, reviewers think they are getting an impression of what life was like in Stalinist Russia, complete with pre-fabricated moral outrage. Them evil commies. As Smith is mostly right about the facts but wrong about contexts and interpretations, he’s not all that easy to ‘disprove’. Child 44, in that regard, is well-made propaganda. In fact, it’s, structurally, remarkably similar to Soviet propaganda. As Soviet propaganda was trying to make its citizens understand that some crimes are produced by the imperialist-capitalist society in the West, Smith tries his best to make his readers understand, first, that that notion is false, and second, that it is, au contraire, Soviet society which produces it’s own special variety of sick killers. It’s a preposterous attempt at lecturing and rather transparent. Although I did have some fun reading the book, this is because I love thrillers of all shapes and sizes; this is not a recommendation. Tom Rob Smith is a worse writer by far than collegues of his like Dan Brown and that’s saying something.