Back in the late 1990’s, a cable movie entitled Citizen X came out on DVD. Based on Robert Cullen’s The Killer Department, it told the story of a Soviet investigator on the trail of a serial killer in a society that maintained it had little crime and serial killers were only in decadent capitalist societies. That serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, traveled around the western USSR, killing children in a horrific, ritualistic manner. The investigator never gave up, caught Chikatilo, but in the process suffered his own psychological trauma from the experience of conducting the investigation in a society ruled by fear and paranoia, and that discourages individual initiative.
Tom Rob Smith has utilized elements of this true serial killer story to form a skeleton on which to hang the flesh of his serial killer novel, Child 44. Suspenseful and a fast read, this novel captures exquisitely well what it feels like to live in a totalitarian police state, the way a person must think in order to survive. Smith clearly delineates the detective’s line of thought, as well as other characters’ thoughts, to show that way of thinking which then determines actions. Lev Demidov, the protagonist/detective, is an MGB agent who has enjoyed great success even though he’s dogged by a rival agent, Vassili. He loves his country and his wife, Raisa, but that love and his past successes aren’t enough to protect him from Vassili’s scheming. He ends up in exile, working for the militia in a small town near the Urals.
Before he left Moscow, before his fall, Demidov had reviewed the case of Arkady, a young boy found murdered gruesomely on train tracks. Since the USSR has no crime, Arkady’s death is ruled an accident — he was hit by a train. But Arkady haunts Demidov, and when he comes across identical child murders in other towns all over western USSR, he decides to find the killer and stop him. This would be supported in a Western country, but not in the USSR where the MGB does everything it can to stop Demidov and his investigation.
This is a riveting story, set in winter to begin and ending in the height of summer’s heat. Smith switches point of view in alternating paragraphs at times which he handles like a pro, making clear whose POV he’s in in each instance. It could have been terribly confusing. What was confusing at times was what time of day it was — Smith does not make this very clear, especially at the beginning of scenes. There were times I wondered how Demidov could be doing what he was doing in the dead of night when it was, it turned out, midday. I also missed a more richly described setting. Smith sketches only what he absolutely needs for the action, sacrificing an important dimension to enrich his story. Russia has its own landscape of beauty, the forests magnificent and almost spiritual, and this could have added to Demidov’s love for his country, deepening his character. Oh, and Smith began his writing career as a screenwriter and this shows in the absence of all five senses in his writing (but strong dialogue).
Smith carefully shows the psychology of people who live in a totalitarian police state, but missed the mark with the psychology of the serial killer. His Andrei is far too self-aware, too rational, and without any motivating inner fantasy to be a convincing serial killer. The murders are more about sending a message than the powerlessness Andrei feels — indeed most characters in this story feel powerless in the face of the State — and a serial killer’s need for power, domination, and control. Serial killings are also sex crimes even if they do not involve rape, and there was very little indication of this when we’re reading Andrei’s POV.
For a first novel, Child 44, is an interesting, fun read. Smith clearly can write well and I look forward to reading more of his work.