Killer Instincts, Weak Execution

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By Dennis Drabelle,
who is a contributing editor, and the mysteries editor, of Book World
Thursday, June 5, 2008

CHILD 44

By Tom Rob Smith

Grand Central. 439 pp. $24.99

British screenwriter Tom Rob Smith's first novel builds on a surefire premise: In the old Soviet Union's hermetically sealed climate of terror and conformity, where the official reaction to unpleasant facts and people is to pretend they don't exist, the serial killer is the ultimate nonperson. Everyone believes no one man could repeatedly elude the all-embracing system, and the local branches of the MGB, the state security force, aren't in the habit of sharing data or pooling efforts. The Russia of 1953, then, is a happy hunting ground for those who murder again and again. Until, that is, Leo Demidov, a cop with a conscience, defies the establishment.

Leo has noticed circumstances common to several cases of child-murder in multiple locations: Whoever is killing the young victims stuffs their mouths with tree bark and excises their stomachs. If Leo had any sense, he would not attempt to tie the cases together. Officials would like him to butt out because they've already pinned the crimes on assorted misfits and can't admit their decisions were rushed and wrong. Leo's wife, Raisa, who has never loved him, wants no waves to be made. Thanks to a rival in the force, she and Leo have already been sent to the boondocks. His parents have lost their roomy apartment because of their son's fall in stature, and if Leo meddles further, they might be sent to a gulag. So we have the appealing setup of a bullheaded man taking on a cruel but jittery regime, headed by a sick, aging dictator whose paranoia has driven him to declare war on Jews and doctors.

Tom Rob Smith's strength is evoking the perversity of a world in which form always trumps substance. When Leo finds the body of a murdered boy that fits the pattern he's been piecing together, he can't do what should come naturally: convene a meeting of interested police chiefs. He must proceed with great care because a mentally handicapped man has already confessed to a similar murder. "Confessions were the bedrock of the judicial system," Smith explains, "and their sanctity needed to be protected at all costs." Leo's revelation would also "mean that a criminal case would be opened without any suspect: a criminal case against persons unknown" in a system that refuses to ask questions to which it does not have the answers.

Smith also has a nice feel for the do-anything resourcefulness tapped by the desperate. During a long sequence in which Leo and Raisa (who are stitching up their frayed marriage) try to keep one step ahead of their pursuers, the couple almost outdo the hero of Geoffrey Household's classic thriller "Rogue Male" in obtaining tools and weapons from unlikely sources. As the chase goes on, the close calls pile up so fast that at times the reader may feel manipulated, but Smith is a skilled manipulator.

He is not, however, a skilled stylist. Participles dangle ("Excited, the blade went in further and faster" ); words are misused ("He no longer believed that they would be designated a better residence"); pronouns are left vague ("To Leo's surprise the prisoner reached up and, with his wrists still bound, felt his brow" -- it's hard to be sure, but I believe the brow being felt was Leo's).

Nor does Smith do justice to his main character. We are told (by Raisa, among others) that Leo is abandoning his "blind faith in the State," yet the fellow we've seen has been a cynic from the start. Had Smith provided a scene or two in which Leo displays or even talks about his early idealism, his later heresy would have some poignancy. As it is, the disillusionment seems merely convenient.

The book's final twist is contrived, and few serial killers in literature have offered such a daffy explanation for their crimes as the one in "Child 44." The extra turns of the screw seem to have been dictated by the philosophy that you can't give the audience too many thrills and surprises. I beg to differ. The bad guy here need not have been someone oh-my-God special, but just a creep taking advantage of the situation -- a workers' paradise with an unwitting friendliness to crime sprees -- that Smith has so effectively depicted.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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