Monday, May 05, 2008

Child 44

The word on Tom Rob Smith's debut novel was that as soon as it reached the shops, Ridley Scott personally rang up the author to bag the film rights. It's not hard to see why, because the spine of the plot consists of a series of highly exciting and undoubtedly cinematic set pieces, all but the very last delivered faultlessly.

The trouble with the finale is that it requires Rob Smith to draw together the two separate premises for his story. The first of these is a fictional reworking of the career of Ukrainian mass-murderer Andrei Chikatilo, shifted backwards 30 or so years to the last few months of Stalin's regime.

This relentless series of child killings connects with the more central disequilibrium: that in the personal and professional life of MGB agent Leo Demikov, driven to oppose the system he has upheld so zealously by the machinations of a vindictive subordinate and, ultimately, by a realisation that the Soviet Union's denial of all forms of crime except those committed by certain pre-defined deviants, may well have been providing the perfect cover for serial murder.

Leo's career (and domestic) downturn is the real engine of this story, and although his life sheds its stability largely through no fault of his own other than a certain amount of tunnel vision, you are left wondering (as in The Lives of Others) just how this unthinking servant of the totalist state is able to make such a rapid transition to free thinker. But this novel is so fast paced the reader is left with little time to reflect on this, or indeed on some of the other interesting themes that lurk just beneath the surface.

I for one thought there was more to be had out of the relationship between Leo and his wife Raysa, but the right kind of nuanced dialogue that was absent on these pages will, with luck, be supplied by Ridley Scott's chosen screenwriter before Child 44 takes its place as a screen hit. Anyway, Rob Smith has undoubtedly achieved a bit of a coup by fabricating so artfully the sort of situation where a husband are forced by almost impossibly tricky circumstances to rediscover the kind of tension that drives cinematic romance.

The climax was the only real disappointment in this gripping novel. Not only does the drawing together of the two main plot strands appear artificial, but the final confrontation which provides the necessary reveal is more worthy of hackneyed TV drama than the often highly original and thrilling sequences which preceded it.

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