About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Book 32, Child 44

What an interesting premise for a book. I finished Child 44, Tom Rob Smith's debut novel, last night, and only just now learned that it's loosely based on the true criminal exploits of Andrei Chikatilo in the Stalinist-era USSR. Perhaps that's proof that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.

At any rate, Child 44 is part murder mystery, part spy thriller, and if you'll pardon the pun, the combination makes for quite a novel read. After a brief but harrowing opening vignette in the famine-ravaged Ukraine of the 1930s, in which two brothers go into the woods on a desparate hunt for meat, but only one returns, the story jumps forward to 1950s Moscow. Here, we meet our protagonist, Leo Demidov, a war hero-cum-secret police officer who appears to be at the top of his game. Possible methamphetamine addiction aside, Leo's unwavering Party loyalty and ruthlessness have served him well; he's risen rapidly through the MGB ranks; has a beautiful wife, Raisa; and has been rewarded with a comfortable apartment of his own and cushy jobs for his aging parents. Moreover, Leo is not just a good politician or an expert spy; he's a true believer in the aims of the State, and in whatever brutal means are necessary to achieve them. When a fellow officer insists that his young son Arkady was murdered, this makes Leo an excellent choice to set the grieving family straight: Arkady's death was a tragic accident, to be sure, but as Stalin's USSR is a worker's paradise, crime -- even murder -- simply doesn't exist.

The limits of Leo's loyalty are tested when, after butting heads with long-time rival Vasili during the capture and torture of a "spy" who turns out to be just an ordinary veterinarian, he finds Raisa's name inserted into a coerced confession. Despite his suspicions, he refuses to save his parents and himself by denouncing her. Given the many interrogations and punishments he himself has administered on the State's behalf, he's not surprised by the 4 a.m. arrest that follows, but he is deeply stricken to learn that Raisa never loved him in the first place, and married him only for the sake of fear and survival. The pair are shipped off to a meager apartment in a remote Ural outpost, where Leo is assigned to a low-level militia job under the command of General Nesterov. Here, he gets involved in investigating the killing of a teenaged prostitute. While the locals are content to pin the blame on a mentally disabled man, Leo recognizes the graphic details as being identical to those reported in Arkady's murder. With Nesterov's grudging support, he sets out to find a pattern and stop the killer ... never mind that no crime records are kept, so there's not much to go on, and if he's discovered, he and his parents will be sent to the gulag or worse.

According to one review, Smith initially envisioned Child 44 as a movie, and it has the feel of one. In many places, he effectively conveys a mood with just a few pointed details. There's one particular escape-and-chase scene I could almost picture watching on the big screen as I read it, and the opening description of a region so beseiged by famine that people boil their shoes and eat bark to stave off starvation is positively haunting.. The only colorful or bright thing about the story is its stark red and white covers; in between, the reader really feels the grey, suffocating nature of the omnipresent Stalinist regime.

Unfortunately, the characters were also a bit monochromatic; by the end of the novel, we've learned a fair amount about Raisa's past and motivations, but little about any of the other principals'. In Leo's case, this may be deliberate -- he believes so completely in the rightness of the State that he really has subsumed his own individual memories -- but it's not clear how he got that way or why the story's events precipitate a change. It's also been suggested that Vasili's intense loathing of Leo needs further explaining, though I'm not sure I agree. As I see it, both Leo and Vasili are just trying to survive, politically and personally -- a situation that's made enemies in far less cut-throat professions than this one.

I do, however, think the ending seems to wrap things up a bit too tidily, given the grim nature of most of the story. The professional side of the resolution was amusing (yes, I'm deliberately being vague so as not to spoil it), but the rest just felt a little too happily-ever-after to ring true. Nonetheless, I found the book up until these last few chapters exciting and intriguing -- enough that I've added Gorky Park and The Gulag Archipelago to my "must read" list, in keeping with the theme. If you enjoy a good spy novel with a decent amount of meat to it, I'd recommend this one.

Next up: Political intrigue enters the 21st century, with Our Lady of Greenwich Village, and then it's on to Marriage, A History ... which is bound to raise some eyebrows during a visit with the in-laws!

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