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Child 44 (Smith)

Child 44 
Tom Rob Smith, 2008
Grand Central Publishing
400 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780446402392


Summary
A gripping novel about one man's dogged pursuit of a serial killer against the opposition of Stalinist state security forces, Child 44 is at once suspenseful and provocative. Tom Rob Smith's remarkable debut thriller powerfully dramatizes the human cost of loyalty, integrity, and love in the face of totalitarian terror.

A decorated war hero driven by dedication to his country and faith in the superiority of Communist ideals, Leo Demidov has built a successful career in the Soviet security network, suppressing ideological crimes and threats against the state with unquestioning efficiency. When a fellow officer's son is killed, Leo is ordered to stop the family from spreading the notion that their child was murdered. For in the official version of Stalin's worker's paradise, such a senseless crime is impossible—an affront to the Revolution. But Leo knows better: a murderer is at large, cruelly targeting children, and the collective power of the Soviet government is denying his existence.

Leo's doubt sets in motion a chain of events that changes his understanding of everything he had previously believed. Smith's deftly crafted plot delivers twist after chilling twist, as it lays bare the deceit of the regime that enveloped an impoverished people in paranoia. In a shocking effort to test Leo's loyalty, his wife, Raisa, is accused of being a spy. Leo's refusal to denounce her costs him his rank, and the couple is banished from Moscow. Humiliated, renounced by his enemies, and deserted by everyone save Raisa, Leo realizes that his redemption rests on finding the vicious serial killer who is eviscerating innocent children and leaving them to die in the bleak Russian woods.

The narrative unfolds at a breathless pace, exposing the culture of fear that turns friends into foes and forces families to hide devastating secrets. As Leo and Raisa close in on the serial killer, desperately trying to stay a step ahead of the government's relentless operatives, the reader races with them through a web of intrigue to the novel's heart-stopping conclusion. (From Barnes and Noble.)



Author Bio
Birth—February 19, 1979
Where—London, England
Education—B.A., Cambridge University
Currently—lives in London, England


After graduating from Cambridge University in 2001 and spending a year in Italy on a creative writing scholarship, Tom Rob Smith went to work writing scripts and storylines for British television. He lived for a while in Phnom Penh, working on Cambodia's first-ever soap opera and doing freelance screenwriting in his spare time.

While researching material for a film adaptation of a short story by British sci-fi writer Jeff Noon, Smith stumbled across the real-life case of "Rostov Ripper" Andrei Chikkatilo, a Russian serial killer who murdered more than 60 women and children in the 1980s. Chikkatilo's killing spree went unchecked for nearly 13 years, largely because Soviet officials refused to admit that crime existed in their perfect state. Intrigued, Smith recognized the potential of this concept as a work of fiction and worked up a script "treatment." His agent, however, suggested the material would be better showcased in a novel.

The result was Child 44, a gripping crime thriller about a Soviet policeman determined to stop a child serial killer his superiors won't even admit exists. Smith upped the action ante by setting the story in the Stalinist era of the 1950s, a period when opposing the state could cost you your life. And, in MGB officer Leo Stepanovich Demidov, he created the most fascinating Russian detective since Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko.

Child 44 became the object of an intense bidding war at the 2007 London Book Fair. (The buzz only increased when director Ridley Scott bought the film rights.) But the book proved worthy of its hype, garnering glowing reviews on its publication in the spring of 2008. Scott Turow (no slouch in the thriller department himself) proclaimed, "Child 44 is a remarkable debut novel—inventive, edgy and relentlessly gripping from the first page to the last."

Extras
From a 2008 Barnes and Noble interview:

• One of my first jobs was working in a sports complex, and I had to fill up all the vending machines. It was boring work and lonely, carrying boxes of Mars Bars down very long, fluorescent-lit corridors. But a moment sticks out. I was restocking a machine when a young boy, maybe five years old, approached me and asked if he could have a chocolate bar. I told him they were for sale: he needed to buy one. He thought about this very seriously for a while, ran off, and came back five minutes later with a conker [horse chestnut]. He honestly believed this was a fair exchange. I guess it must have had some value to him. Anyway, I gave him the chocolate bar for free. It wasn't mine, I suppose, to give away, but it made a dull day a little brighter."

• My Swedish grandparents used to be beekeepers. They made the best honey I've ever tasted. I spent my summer holidays living on their farm. It was a wonderful place to spend a summer. My parents, now retired, live on a small farm—a different farm—near the sea in the South of Sweden. So now I have another place to retreat from the world. They're not beekeepers though.

• I like running, although I suffer from a problem with my knees. They slide out of position, which has caused me some problems recently. If anyone out there can help, I'd be more than happy to hear suggestions. Hours of physiotherapy haven't really worked."

When asked what book that most influenced his life or career as a writer, here is what Smith said:

In terms of my career as a writer, I'm going to pick Robert Conquest's The Harvest of Sorrow. It played a crucial part in my decision to write Child 44.

Back in August 2005, all I had was a story outline. It was set in a period I didn't, in all honesty, know that much about. I remember walking into a book shop in Piccadilly and browsing the Russian History section. The prologue was set in the famines of the 1930s, so Conquest's book seemed an obvious purchase. Had the book been oblique or impenetrable, had the book not engaged me emotionally, I'm not sure I would've taken the plunge. As it happened, Conquest's book provided me with a jolt of energy. It's a remarkable read—brilliantly lucid, yet never clinical or detached. There's a cool-headed outrage at the events it describes.

It's one thing to have the broad brushstrokes of a story, but it was when tiny moments started to occur to me, that's when I knew I could write Child 44. It was while reading Conquest's descriptions of villages where all the dogs and cats had been eaten that I began to wonder if there had been someone who loved their cat so much that they couldn't bear to eat it—even when they were starving to death. That was how the character of Maria (from the opening paragraph) was born. (Author bio and interview from Barnes and Noble.)



Book Reviews
Once Leo and his wife are banished to a town in the Ural Mountains, where another murder is committed, the narrative whips into action as a fugitive drama. The language becomes leaner, the style more fluid and cinematic, as Leo's forbidden investigation causes more innocent people to suffer and transforms this onetime war hero into a criminal. In a society riven by fear and mistrust, even a serial killer seems less threatening than a man who has learned to think for himself.
Marilyn Stasio - New York Times Book Review


Set in the Soviet Union in 1953, this stellar debut from British author Smith offers appealing characters, a strong plot and authentic period detail. When war hero Leo Stepanovich Demidov, a rising star in the MGB, the State Security force, is assigned to look into the death of a child, Leo is annoyed, first because this takes him away from a more important case, but, more importantly, because the parents insist the child was murdered. In Stalinist Russia, there's no such thing as murder; the only criminals are those who are enemies of the state. After attempting to curb the violent excesses of his second-in-command, Leo is forced to investigate his own wife, the beautiful Raisa, who's suspected of being an Anglo-American sympathizer. Demoted and exiled from Moscow, Leo stumbles onto more evidence of the child killer. The evocation of the deadly cloud-cuckoo-land of Russia during Stalin's final days will remind many of Gorky Park and Darkness at Noon, but the novel remains Smith's alone, completely original and absolutely satisfying.
Publishers Weekly


Grisly, gruesome, and gory are just three ways to describe this debut novel by young British screenwriter Smith. While adapting a short story by sf writer Jeff Noon, Smith came across the true account of Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who after killing more than 50 women and children was executed in 1994. His story inspired Smith to write this grim, 1953-set novel, which ties together just about all of the worst aspects of the Stalinist regime. The Ukrainian famine and the unrelieved horror of the gulag, among other historical hooks, add to the saga of ex-soldier and police official Leo Demidov, who dissects the morbid clues left by the killer. The paradox of crime in a workers' paradise denies any legitimacy to Leo's investigation, since, by definition, such repellent crimes are impossible. With some 20 foreign sales to date and film rights already in Ridley Scott's hands, this successor to Hannibal Lector's lurid mantle has nonstop plotting, a nonstop pace, and even a surprise ending. Horror genre readers will thrill to it; others may be advised to ask for a barf bag as well as their date due slip. Suspense collections in large libraries will likely need several copies to fill waiting lists.
Barbara Conaty - Library Journal


During the terror of Stalin's last days, a secret policeman becomes a detective stalking a serial killer in a debut novel from a shockingly talented 28-year-old Brit. Skillfully drawing on the only totalitarian milieu more frightening than the Nazis, Smith opens the book in a village of starving kulaks, where two young brothers set out in the snow to trap the last local cat that hasn't been eaten. Myopic young Andrei throws himself on the frantic feline only to have both cat and older brother Pavel snatched by a mysterious man who bags them and disappears, leaving Andrei to stumble home alone. Both Pavel and Andrei figure later in a plot that shifts to the early '50s as Father Stalin has begun his final mad purges. War hero MGB officer Leo Stepanovich Demidov begins to realize, during the course of performing his brutal State Security duties, that the death of the four-year-old son of a younger associate may not have been as accidental as the official report suggested. Family and neighbors claim that the child was brutally assaulted before being left on the railroad tracks. The problem for good soldier Leo is that in the Glorious Workers' Paradise, where every citizen has everything he needs, there is no such thing as crime. There are only attacks by the corrupt outside world. Leo has another problem. His beautiful wife Raisa, whom he suspects of infidelity, has been charged by Leo's vicious rival Vasili with espionage, and Leo has been ordered to verify that claim. Learning too late that the innocent and faithful Raisa fears rather than loves him, rattled by Vasili's treachery, knowing that he is damaged goods, Leo counts himself lucky to be exiled to duty in a hick town where hediscovers further murders and begins a hair-raising hunt for the perpetrator. Nerve-wracking pace and atmosphere camouflage wild coincidences.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Leo's character evolves over the course of the book. What do you see as the most significant catalyst for change?

2. What propels Leo to go forward in his quest for the murderer: fear, compassion, or a sense of justice?

3. The relationship between Vasili and Leo is contentious from the beginning. Does Vasili feel pure hate, contempt, or jealousy for Leo? Why?

4. When Raisa reveals the truth of their marriage to Leo, were you surprised at his reaction? Would you have made similar choices under the circumstances? When does personal conviction trump duty and loyalty?

5. Who do you think was ultimately responsible for incriminating Raisa. What would it be like to live in a society in which everyone is under suspicion of crimes against the state?

6. Does the book's portrayal of life in a totalitarian state remind you of any other books?

7. In 1953, the year of Stalin's death, there were 2,468,524 prisoners in the Gulag system. Do you think that legacy affects Russian culture today?

8. Which character's duplicity or innocence did you find most surprising, and why?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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