After some chilling backstory about children starving to death in the Russian woods, in Tom Rob Smith's "Child 44" we enter the life of Soviet Secret Police-man Leo Demidov, war hero and poster-child for communist political hygiene and proletarian virtue.
Demidov is stupid, strong, and lucky -- a consummate survivor who is also "the best hunter in the world." He always gets his man. His man is also always "decided" to be guilty, giving Demidov a rock-solid, hundred-percent conviction rate. Demidov knows exactly how to torture suspects until he gets a confession, knows exactly how to kill subversives quickly before they can recant, and knows exactly how to hit the showers with the rest of the boys to talk Soviet Secret Police shop-talk in order to keep his record clean (it is like regular shop-talk, only with more hollowed-out rubles for storing microfilm).
Demidov has personally killed hundreds of innocent men, women, and children. He's fingered thousands. Also, he's a meth addict.
Demidov seems like an unlikely candidate for a detective-hero, mainly because he has no deductive skills nor horse sense nor psychological guile nor gadgets nor morals nor sympathy. He's certainly no Porfiry Petrovich, having his sad little laughs while nailing down murderers left and right using only the Devil's own intuition. Demidov is more like a James Ellroy dick: it's only an accident that he's on the right side of the law. This is especially true in Stalinist Russia, where there are no sides, only a twisting labyrinth where the Man of Steel pursues dissidents like the Minotaur, rising out of nowhere to destroy lives just for the fun of it. Demidov is no hero: instead, he is the bumbling soul of Russia, following the conduits of power and supposedly doing the right thing despite the prima facie EVIL (hoo-hoo-hoo-ha-ha-ha) of his orders and superiors.
In a totalitarian state, crime isn't doing what's wrong. Crime is doing anything that criminals do.
"Child 44" begins as police procedural and slice-of-Stalinist-life, but the thrills come fast as Demidov gets in over his head on a case that can't be solved (this time) by rounding up all the local gays and sending them to Siberia. But "Child 44" is only a serial-killer-thriller-novel on the surface. It is really about how hard it is to find a killer of innocents in a place where no one ever is.
One of the most fun things about this book is that all the standard cop drama shit is intact -- a supercop, in trouble with superiors, in trouble with a spouse, acting on a rogue hunch about a controversial crime, with a drug problem -- except that the cop in question is a professional thug for the worst, bloodiest dictatorship in human history. He is a purger in "the" purges.
"You're off the case, Demidov! You're being demoted to patrolman!"
"Ooo, that burns me good, Chief. I'll show you: I'll bring in the biggest, most subversive gay German spy I can find. I'll torture him for DAYS. I'll plant so much evidence, so much evidence...why...he'll be convicted of every crime we've got!"
It really makes you think. About cliches. About authority. About justice.
"Child 44" begins with a confluence of two unrelated events that result in Demidov's slow, plodding political fall and subsequent awakening: the murder of a young child is covered up by the secret police (nothing new) and then Leo is instructed to investigate his own wife, Raisa, for secret subversive spy activity.
I could tell you the plot of the book, but instead, I'll simply tell you about the true story of Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, also known as the Rostov Ripper. Chikatilo was a chronic bed-wetter raised by his mom who told him that his older brother had been kidnapped and eaten by starving neighbors and whose father was branded a traitor for surrendering to Nazi soldiers during the Great Patriotic War.
Chikatilo could only become sexually aroused by killing women and children, which means that he only became sexually aroused 52 times in his life, which is not a high number if you think about it. That's a dry week for a college freshman, for instance.
After murdering folks for forty years, getting married, and raising two children of his own, Chikatilo was finally caught in the nineties.
"On 6 November 1990, Chikatilo killed and mutilated Sveta Korostik. While leaving the crime scene, he was stopped by an undercover policeman who was patrolling the Leskhoz train station and saw Chikatilo approaching from the woods. According to the policeman, he looked suspicious. The only reason for someone to go into the woods at that time of year was to gather wild mushrooms (a popular pastime in Russia). However, Chikatilo was not dressed like a typical forest hiker. He was wearing more formal attire. Moreover, he had a nylon sports bag, which was not suitable for carrying mushrooms. His clothing was dirty and he had what looked like smeared blood stains on his cheek and ear. The policeman stopped Chikatilo and checked his papers. Having no formal reason for arrest, Chikatilo was not held. Had Chikatilo's bag been checked, he would have found the amputated breasts of Sveta Korostik."
As a result of being stopped by the policeman, however, Chikatilo was tagged as a "person of interest." The Soviet police followed Chikatilo around and saw that he was always trying to give beer to young children. They arrested him and got a confession.
In fact, they got 52 confessions.
From Wikipedia again:
"The trial ended in July and sentencing was postponed until October 15 when he was found guilty of 52 of the 53 murders and sentenced to death for each offense. Judge Leonid Akhobzyanov made the following speech: "Taking into consideration the monstrous crimes he committed, this court has no alternative but to impose the only sentence that he deserves. I therefore sentence him to death." After hearing the sentence, the audience, made up of victim's families, broke into applause. When given a chance to speak, Chikatilo delivered a rambling speech, blaming the regime, certain political leaders, his impotence (even removing his trousers at one point) and defending himself by blaming his childhood experiences during the famine in Ukraine in the 1930s. At one point he claimed that he had done a favor to society by cleansing it of "worthless people". Chikatilo was seen saying something as police removed him from his iron cage and led him away.
On January 4, 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin refused a last ditch appeal for clemency. On February 14, Chikatilo was taken to a soundproofed room in Novocherkassk prison and executed by a single gunshot behind the right ear."
The point of "Child 44" is that the only thing worse than a twisted, psychotic serial killer on the loose is a whole country with a pathological, paranoid, and genocidal agenda. The best (and most disturbing) parts of this book are the parts where the Soviet system grinds down our heroes no matter what they do, causing them to become hard, flinty, and careless: why bother following the law if you are doomed anyway when arbitrary suspicion falls on your shoulders?
"Child 44" is a fun read, and it is supposedly the first part of a trilogy. The sequel, "The Secret Speech," is already out. If you like lurid, grotesque, exploitative Soviet strife-porn, you'll like these books.
As long as you understand that the real villain is not the "serial killer," but the bigger and bolder antagonist known as "the State" (the serial killer is only a henchman), it is easy to ignore some of the book's more unfortunate narrative choices and to see "Child 44" more as some kind of dopy allegory.
Otherwise, the book suffers from several decisions toward the end that result in an awful, contrived conclusion that seems cobbled together in order for the book to quickly become a smash-hit Hollywood movie.
I hate to make that claim because it is a serious criticism to raise against a piece of literature, but it feels true, nonetheless.
I hate to accuse this book of subversive, capitalist sympathies.
I hate to call this book a traitor to narrative.
I hate to name names. I hate to point fingers.
But I have to tell you, I dug this book mightily until the final piece of the puzzle was revealed, and then finishing it was like chewing tree bark to keep from being hungry.
I'm just warning you before you decide to pick this book up and get involved in its gripping, punchy narrative: "Child 44" has one of the most implausible, silly finales I've ever read.
I don't want you to blame me later. I don't want you to write me furious letters, because we're all friends here, and there are plenty of other reasons to read a piece of literature other than climax and resolution.
Why didn't somebody take Smith aside and say: "No, Tom. You have to change this. No one will believe your ending. And then they won't believe the other stuff you wrote either. About Stalin. About the purges. You have to write a believable lie if you want people to believe the terrible truth."
Because like a child being gutted in the snow...
Like Tzarist Russia herself...
Like those who devoted their lives to the Communist cause, only to end up starving to death in one of Stalin's gulags...
Gadadammit, this book, she end so bad. Pfui.
Posted by miracle on Thu, 16 Apr 2009 01:49:53 -0400 -- permanent link