Fresh Blood

Name: Tom Rob Smith

Title of Book: Child 44

'... a cracking debut.'

Moscow 1953: Leo Demidov is a treasured member of the MGB, arresting and interrogating men and women who have been accused spying. In a time when people were afraid of being arrested, fingers are pointed and innocent people are being tortured and executed without any evidence. Others are sent to the gulags to die a slow and painful death. Leo upholds the law of a country whoís citizens are living in fear of being dragged from their beds and shot without question. It is a law Leo believes in one hundred percent.

Then, after a man has been tortured and shot, one of the names on his list of informants is Leoís own wife, Raisa. Does he hand her over to the authorities where she will undoubtably be killed, or does he stand by her? To him, the decision is obvious and soon he has been transferred to a small town in the Urals - demoted. There Leo finds the two bodies of a boy and a girl who have been killed in an identical manner. The exact same way a small boy was killed in Moscow. A crime he was ordered to cover up as an accident.

Now the evidence is overwhelming and Leo begins to investigate with the help of Raisa and his commanding officer, Nesterov. Soon, a nemesis from the MGB is after Leo and both husband and wife who are so close to finding the murderer of forty-four children are soon sought themselves by the MGB. Before the case is closed, Leo will have paid a huge price - emotionally as well as physically.

Child 44 takes place during Stalinís rule of Russia, when the nation feared their leader and the men who were placed to uphold his ideals. Freedom of speech was not an option. The first half of Child 44 shows Smith detailing this sense of claustrophobia and suspicion amongst the population. People informed against one other, many innocents were sent to their deaths on suspicion alone. Russia had to be seen by the outside world as the perfect State. This could only be managed by cruelty of unbelievable proportions.

Smith details Leoís existence as one of the most celebrated officers of the MGB. His lifestyle is good. He has a smart flat, a beautiful wife and certain privileges that put him well above the normal populace who are starving and have to queue for hours for basic food. Then Smith shows the dramatic reversal of fortune that can make a man crash and burn. Despite the overpowering images Smith conjures up, the tone is not too heavy. The portrayal of Leoís life is never overly dark, just representing that this was the way of the USSR.

The plot of the murdered children is touched upon at the beginning of Child 44 but it is only when Leo is sent to the Urals that this particular plot strand come in to play. This second half of the book is extremely gripping and I was literally flying through the pages to get to the end to see what happens. Smith keeps the plot moving at a cracking pace and the cat and mouse race between Leo and the MGB is well written and continues that sense of people desperately covering the truth with many lies.

Tom Rob Smith is a screenwriter and has started his career as a novelist with a cracking debut. Child 44 is in turn horrific, thought provoking, thrilling and eventually heart-warming. A marvellous tale very well told. As a debut this is outstanding. I look forward to see where Mr. Smith takes us in his next novel.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) As it slowly evolves and increases in popularity, crime fiction seems to be organically sub-dividing into a number of widely diverse categories. Which genre (or sub-genre, evenÖ) of crime novel would you say you write in?
Iím not sure how usefully I can answer that question Ė my knowledge of these boundaries is almost certainly nowhere near as good as yours. This isnít quite answering your question but in writing CHILD 44 I thought a lot about two very distinct elements to serial killer stories. There are stories that are essentially fascinating puzzles, with clues and twists. But the pursuit of a serial killer can also encapsulate something of the period. How a crime is investigated is a very useful litmus test for larger forces within a society, the priorities and prejudices of that world. I guess with CHILD 44 I wanted to combine both those elements Ė the puzzle and the period in which this puzzle is unraveling.
2) What type of crime novels do you like to read? Do you prefer series or standalone?
I tend to read books in isolation. I almost never read the same author in sequence Ė Iíll always come back to them later. If I were to read a trilogy, Iíd always read something else in between each book. Again, that isnít really answering your question. I suppose I donít really have a preference. Both types of book offer different advantages.
3) As a Londoner originally, why did you choose the Soviet Union as the setting for your first book?
The story is based on a real killer, Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered for ten years not because he was particularly ingenious but because the Soviet system was reluctant to admit that a serial killer could exist. The location was decided by the story - theyíre inextricable. It didnít cross my mind to set the story anywhere else.
4) Where did the character of Officer Leo Demidov originate? Will he return in a sequel and, if so, will you move things forward in time?
It struck me as an interesting journey to take a detective who has spent his entire career arresting political suspects - innocent men and women - and have him try and redeem himself by arresting one genuinely guilty person. The irony is that Leo is richly rewarded for arresting innocent people but his life is on the line when he tries to do the right thing.

Yes, Leo will return. Iím working on the follow-up to CHILD 44 now. Even though itís only a couple of years after the end of the first book, society changed dramatically and thatís fed directly into the new book.
5) Child 44 takes place in 1950ís Russia where interrogation and a climate of suspicion were rife. What attracted you to this difficult period and how did you research it?
The story meant it had to be set in the Soviet Union. But the real killer murdered in the 1980s. I moved it back to the 1950s because I wanted the pressures on Leo to be as high as possible - if you said the wrong thing in the 1950s you lost your life. In the 1980s society was freer, comparatively.

Travel was useful. But the most important research was reading - the books on the period are incredible; the histories, the diaries - I couldnít have written CHILD 44 without them
6) The characters speech is shown in italics and the novel reads like a hybrid novel/screenplay. Does your background as a screenwriter lead you to present the book in this format?
Screenplays format dialogue distinct from stage directions. You can see at a glance where the dialogue is. I wanted to capture something of that effect in the hope it makes the dialogue easier and faster to read. You donít have to keep inserting Ė he said, she said.

Also, because theyíre speaking Russian, but Iím writing in English, it did feel odd putting speech marks around their dialogue, as if to imply this is exactly what was said.
7) Without giving away the plot, which book - yours or by another author - included your favourite plot twist of all time?
I had to think hard with this question. It made me realize that most of my favorite twists are in films or TV. Thereís a great twist in THE BLIND ASSASSIN, some great ones in THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO.
8) What is your favourite movie adaptation of a crime novel?
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is amazing, pretty near perfect. I also loved MONSTER. I saw that recently, again, I thought it was amazing - incredibly sad.
9) Would you describe yourself as a crime fiction fan in general and, if so, which authors do you most admire and why?
I love good stories. Iíve always read from any genre. If something caught my eye, Iíd read it - fiction, non-fiction. However, if I were going to pin down a preference Iíd say Iíve always enjoyed adventure stories. Crime fiction often has a strong element of adventure. I certainly see CHILD 44 as much as an adventure as it is a detective story.
10) What is your favourite crime read of all time?
Iím going to look like a Thomas Harris junkie, but RED DRAGON is great. To keep in the Russian theme, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT has one of the most exciting opening hundred pages of any book.