Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Child 44

This new entry in the suspense/thriller genre has an entertaining twist that separates it from the run-of-the-mill hunt for a serial killer story. Child 44 (Grand Central Publishing, 2008) takes place in the Stalinist Russia of the 1950's, where it's hard to tell the difference between the murderer and his state paid pursuers.

The author, Tom Rob Smith, has produced an engaging page-turner. But in today's publishing climate good writing doesn't guarantee publication. Smith's solution to the publishing industry's obsession with tried-and-true formulas, and its paradoxical insistence on exploring new territory at the same time, is to put his protagonist, MGB officer Leo Demidov, in an environment that is every bit as murderous as the killer is.

Leo's employer, the predecessor of the KGB, insists that communism has removed the social cancer that serial killers are a symptom of, i.e., serial murder doesn't exist in the Soviet Union. To suggest otherwise, by proving that a murder is one of many committed by the same killer for instance, is subversive in itself. Consequently, much of the suspense of the novel is generated by Demidov's attempt to investigate the killings without appearing to do so. Along the way we encounter some coincidences that would make Dickens blush. The strength of Smith's writing is such, however, that we don't really care.

I must confess I've long been a fan of the suspense thrillers featuring Nazi's, such as those written by Jack Higgins. German fascism contained enough unadulterated evil that one didn't have to spend any energy judging it; it was easy to concentrate on the plot and characterization. These novels were my way of escaping the pressures of real life.

As the destruction of Nazism faded in memory, though, the genre became dated. Attempts to replicate the same dynamics with Communist villains somehow fell flat (with the notable exception of John Le Carree). Tom Rob Smith has solved the problem, however, with his description of another totalitarian system whose evil logic requires it to consume its own in order to stay consistent. Smith can expect to receive the highest honor literary types can bestow: his solution will be copied.

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