Book: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, 2008, Grand Central, New York. 450 pages.
A thriller! Unconventional. Unpredictable. I didn’t know how it could possibly end.
The plot of this story and the carefully crafted setting in the former Soviet Union is so good that you will race to the finish.
Everything works backward in the Soviet Union. Good is bad. Bad is good. And to add nuance, Stalin dies in the middle of the book so you don’t even know to what degree good or bad. At times you are lost in a house of mirrors, not knowing what will happen when the characters move right or left.
Now add a brilliant plot, worthy of John Le Carre at his very best. And I mean at his very best. For when it comes to logic and plots, even John Le Carre isn’t John Le Carre anymore. The Panama Tailor, with its story of the Japanese takeover of the Panama Canal, representing his weakest entry. But Child 44 has a couple of twists that invoke the sort of chills that came with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
Of course, Tom Rob Smith is no John Le Carre, at least when it comes to language. I mean he has a few lines… “To stand up for someone was to stitch your fate into the lining of theirs.” Or “the wallpaper was bubbled like adolescent skin.” But it is the unpredictable plot, not language, that rules this story.
Now, there are times when I really wondered. I have visited all of these places in Russia many times, from Rostov to Moscow and points east. And I am going back this year, from St. Petersburg to Volgograd to Yekaterinburg to Vladivostok. I kept telling myself that I have to pack this book along and ask my old Russian friends about the validity of some of the author’s ideas. Let’s face it the Wall not only kept them in, it kept us out. Yet still, some of them are as ignorant as we are about real life in the former Soviet Union.
The book has a couple of distractions. There are some odd, James Bond moments, probably thrown in for the movie version to come, but hey, good luck happens.
From the looks of his picture on the jacket, this author is young. So his language will develop sophistication. And his experience will bring more realism to his works. But his ability to plot is so profound and his character development so complex that we will surely be reading many of his new stories for years to come. Those are gifts of a brilliant, unconventional, easily bored mind. They cannot be developed. You got em or you don’t. And Tom Rob Smith has got em.