Leo Demidov's personal hell has truly been paved with the best of intentions. The Soviet war hero and rising star within Stalin's State Security force has ordered the execution of thousands of his countrymen, or worse, dispatched them to the infamous gulags, all in service to the greater good of communism. But when he obediently dismisses the brutal 1953 murder and evisceration of a colleague's young son as nothing more than an accident, the narrow path of lies on which his career is founded suddenly veers into a nightmarish landscape of his own worst fears. The child is, in fact, a victim of an evil the Soviet state has never seen before: a serial killer.
Welcome to Child 44, a grisly and gripping redemption tale constructed by 28-year-old British newcomer Tom Rob Smith that puts the screws to your personal sense of morality. Would you betray your spouse to save yourself or your parents? Could you conduct torture, or endure it? Could you execute your own sibling? These are just a few of the dark choices Leo must face in this bone-chilling, frostbitten thriller.
"It's easy in most of today's societies to be a good person because, fundamentally, the societies are good; we're liberal, we're tolerant, we're about people achieving what they want to achieve in a sweeping sense," Smith says. "But when your society is asking these terrible things of you, how easy is it to buck it? How easy is it to shrug that off, and how easy do you get caught up in that?"
Initially at least, readers may be more repulsed by than attracted to Leo. He is, after all, a state-employed grim reaper whose parents and wife Raisa live comfortably because of the terrible things he does to real and rumored dissidents alike. But when Vasili, Leo's scheming subordinate, plants doubts about Leo within the paranoid hierarchy, Leo and Raisa find themselves exiled to the boondocks.
That's where Leo begins putting together the missing-children puzzle pieces, an unauthorized activity that unintentionally results in a one-way trip to the gulags for some 200 suspected homosexuals. It also makes Leo and Raisa fugitives from Vasili, now Leo's superior, who seeks to crush the pair before they can expose crimes that have already been officially paid for by such convenient scapegoats as mental patients and gays.
"Leo is the kind of character you see in Conrad a lot, which is this idealism gone wrong," says Smith. "He is someone who is fundamentally a good person, but in the attempt to arrest someone who is genuinely guilty, he is then persecuted for it. It's an interesting flip for me, but then it's an interesting redemption for him."
Dark secrets from Leo's past lead to a surprising and satisfying conclusion. Smith is already hard at work on a sequel, The Secret Speech, which picks up Leo's story three years later when thousands of those whose lives Leo ruined are released from the gulags.
What prompted Smith to set a serial killer thriller within one of the world's most repressive regimes? History, actually. The London-based, Cambridge-educated television screenwriter and editor was working on a screen adaptation of "Somewhere the Shadow," a short story by U.K. science fiction writer Jeff Noon (Vurt; Pollen) when he happened upon the true-crime case of Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo.
"He was what were called 'pushers' whose job was basically to go and beg a factory to deliver whatever it had promised to deliver, because everyone was behind on these deliveries. So he had this job going up and down the country by rail, which enabled him to kill over a wide distance," he says.
Smith dove into researching the Soviet Union, reading everything from Robert Conquest's The Harvest of Sorrow to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago to yes, even Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park.
"My first thought was that this would make a great movie, so I wrote a 12-page outline and pitched it to my film agent," says Smith. "He said, 'Well, it's Stalinist Russia, it's period, it's going to cost $80-$100 million to produce and there are only like three directors in the world who can get this off the ground. You're an unknown writer; you're shooting for the moon.' Instead, he suggested that I should write it as a book."
Smith credits Child 44's breathless pace to his screenwriting background. "In screenwriting, you think about set pieces a lot. Movie directors are very ruthless about making sure that things happen at the right point and that things are always happening; you can't have, say, 10 dull minutes. That's something that I took from screenwriting and applied to this."
That said, Smith loved the freedom of prose. "There are things in this book that I could never have done in a movie script," he admits. "One of the things I love about writing prose is that you can bring peripheral characters absolutely to the forefront of the action in two paragraphs and really explore them in a way that is very difficult to do in movies."
Although readers should brace themselves for a few uncomfortable scenes of violence and torture in Child 44, most of the horrors occur in our heads, not on the page, as Smith exposes the agonizing paranoia of the Stalinist era.
Objections to the book's violence "surprise me slightly, not in the sense that I thought it was going to be an easy read, but I'm not really interested in gore," he says. "It's like describing sex in a book; it's very difficult because it just becomes almost anatomical and slightly uninteresting. I'm interested in the emotional side of things."
About that expensive movie version: Child 44 has been optioned by one of those three green-light directors, Ridley Scott of Blade Runner, Alien and Gladiator fame. Will Smith be writing the screenplay?"
No. I spent two-and-a-half years playing on the strengths of this as a book. I didn't really feel like I was the person to then rediscover it as a movie. I thought, someone needs to come at this fresh."
Jay MacDonald writes from snow-free Austin.