Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

If there’s no such thing as bad publicity, then Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel is the early winner of the Booker Prize longlist. More column inches, most of them negative, seem to have been written about Child 44 than about any other longlisted title. “A fairly well-written and well-paced thriller that is no more than that,” said Jamie Byng of Canongate, damning with faint praise, adding, for the avoidance of doubt, “I cannot respect a judging committee that decides to pick a book like Child 44.” Others call it “a great page turner of a read but not a Booker contender.” My feeling is that there shouldn’t be such a category as “Booker contender,” or at least not one which excludes thrillers. Patricia Highsmith wrote ‘suspense novels’ but I would rescue several of her titles from my shelves ahead of many Booker winners. In fact there is no such exclusion: the great Brian Moore was shortlisted twice for his late-career thrillers, The Colour of Blood (1987) and Lies of Silence (1990). Enough of that: is Child 44 any good then, thriller or not?

The first thing to say, as may be clear from above, is that I would never have picked up Child 44 if it hadn’t been Booker longlisted. I don’t think it constitutes a spoiler – the blurb will tell you as much – to say that the book is a serial killer thriller (a little more than that, but it conveys the gist), and on the few occasions I’ve tried those before, I’ve never profited. Fred Vargas’s Seeking Whom He May Devour and Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon are the only ones that spring to mind, and I found them both unsatisfying, fatally limited by their own terms of reference (whodunit? and why did he do it? respectively).

Child 44 does have some promise, however, with an interesting setting – Soviet Russia and Ukraine in the 1950s – and an opening scene which reaches out pretty garishly to attract the reader but is nonetheless effective. Smith also manages to evoke the era and setting well without getting bogged down in detail. Leo Demidov is “an up-and-coming member of the MGB, the state security force” who deals in the sort of quotidian brutality in which the USSR specialised under Stalin. Anyone who asks too many questions is an enemy of the state, and in particular, people are reminded that crime does not exist in the Soviet Union. Leo, for example, must tell a family whose son was found dead on a railway line that he was not murdered as they suspect, but died accidentally.

This, via a series of conflicts with his superiors and colleagues, leads Leo to pursue justice for the family. (This takes us to halfway through the book, but again, I’m not revealing any more than the cover blurb does.)

If this seems to you to have a whiff of familiarity to it, you’d be right. It’s the old trope of the official who goes off on his own to investigate the murder despite being warned that the authorities consider the case closed. This, perhaps, is not Smith’s fault – just as it’s not his fault that his publishers have spent a packet promoting the book, or that the Booker judges by longlisting it have exposed the book to the scrutiny of people who would never otherwise have read it – but a fault of the genre.

However it’s also the case that Smith does not seem to have made any effort to transcend the limitations of his chosen form. Child 44 is well researched for its time and place, but there is no interest in authenticity elsewhere, particularly in what we might reasonably call the ‘action sequences’, such as a pursuit under ice, escape from a Gulag train (an especially untoothful part), and the closing chase scenes – for this is one of those books where the last 90% of the action takes place in the last 10% of the pages. Similarly the bibliography cited by Smith rings hollow when he has been unable to teach the reader anything unexpected about the USSR or about human nature: there are no surprises, no characters subverting our expectations, no challenges to the reader’s assumptions.

Others have said, on blogs and forums, that Child 44 is, despite its weaknesses, “a great page-turner” or “an excellent thriller.” Never mind that, I want to say: is it a good book? I don’t think it can be: it leaves the reader with nothing to contribute, preferring to explain everything as it arises, usually in unlikely reflections by the main characters – like that explanatory description of Leo Demidov’s job (“an up-and-coming member of the MGB, the state security force”), which comes from Leo’s point of view, as though he would routinely remind himself about his job and what MGB means. Indeed point of view seems to be a closed book to Smith, along with narrative integrity generally. He regularly switches viewpoint in the middle of a scene, to suit what he needs to tell the reader – almost all the exposition in the book comes from this or from over-explanatory dialogue – and has extraordinary blunders like the following sequence of thought attributed to a four-year-old child:

If he ran he’d be safe. The shot, no matter how well made, no matter how accurate, could only travel so far through the air before it began to lose shape, fall apart. And even if it hit, after a certain distance they were harmless, barely worth throwing at all. If he ran, he could finish on a high. He didn’t want his victory overturned, tainted by a succession of quick hits from his brother. No: run and claim success. Finish the game now. He’d be able to enjoy the feeling until at least tomorrow when he’d probably lose again. But that was tomorrow. Today was victory.

Less significant solecisms pepper the text, especially a blind spot with commas, and there are distracting formatting problems like all the dialogue throughout being in italics (apparently to signify words in translation: a barmy notion). But Child 44‘s greatest sin is not the dialogue it does have, but the dialogue it doesn’t: it offers no exchange between reader and writer. This is a monologue where the reader is a mute witness. It reminded me of multiplex blockbusters like Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum – sequences of action pinned together by a secondary plot. The only dialogue here seemed to be the writer asking, “Will this do?” and my wondering, “Is that it?”

It may be that as a movie – it’s been optioned by Ridley Scott – Child 44 will be, if not better, at least more successful on its own terms. As mentioned before, it’s not Tom Rob Smith’s fault that the Booker judges have chosen this is one of the best 13 novels published in the last year. He wrote an unpretentious thriller, which doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a disposable time-filler. Then again, I couldn’t see anything to justify anyone spending time on it even on those terms. Perhaps it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But there’s no need to court it quite so brazenly.


  1. “My feeling is that there shouldn’t be such a category as “Booker contender,”

    John, I think your brilliant review of Child 44 has exposed the fact that there IS such a thing as a Booker contender and you outline the criteria;
    regardless of genre, it must leave the reader with something to contribute. I don’t think anyone would argue with the genre as much as the fact that this book does what it says on the tin and only that, but as you say, it doesn’t offer that exchange between reader and writer.
    I’m still on the “let’s generate a row” theory over Child 44’s inclusion and the Booker organisation’s self-confessed love of a good controversy to court some publicity for the prize, your last line sums that up perfectly.

  2. It really does sound to me like a movie waiting to happen, and I understand it already has been optioned.

    A “great page turner” need not be a good book, often I think it’s preferred that it not be even, but the difficulty here as you say is that it is being marketed to those who are seeking good books and that doesn’t really sound like what it sets out to be. I have a shameful fondness for Sax Rohmer, but I wouldn’t submit him for a posthumous Booker.

    The last 10% containing 90% of the action sounds cinematic also, if you picture it as a film that’s the thrilling action climax to the movie. A chase, gunfights (I’m guessing, happy to be wrong), heart-pounding action and all that.

    I think this is another one I won’t personally be picking up, I enjoy some genre fiction (particularly crime) but the best genre fiction is often aware of the constraints it works within with the author consciously choosing how to address them. Here it doesn’t sound like Tom Rob Smith gave that much thought to how to address his genre constraints, he seems rather to have simply written a competent thriller which sticks fairly faithfully to the formula its genre sets for it. Nothing wrong with that, but given my reading time is limited it doesn’t sell to me on that basis.

    I do agree that crime/thrillers/suspense/whatever one calls it can be literary. The Talented Mr Ripley for example brings us to sympathise with a deeply inadequate sociopath, and that is I think an very interesting and difficult thing for a novel to do. It leaves us with questions, about Ripley and our response to him. Laidlaw to take another example raises questions about the responsibility of society for the individual, and our collective guilt for the crimes of others. I get the impression the only question this novel leaves us with is who will be cast as the protagonist in the movie.

  3. Excellent review, John. I have to admit I was expecting you to absolutely lambast the book, but you managed to give a negative review that was still thoughtful and well reasoned. You expressed many of my own feelings on the book and on its inclusion on the longlist. Much thanks!

  4. Just plagiarising from myself on the Booker, John, in a short piece of Booknews, of perhaps dubious accuracy:

    The Booker Prize is to adopt the Eurovision format of the public voting for the winner from next year, with bonus points awarded to books recommended by the major political parties. The public are asked, when choosing their book choice, to especially bear in mind the categories of ‘Relevant to Our Times’, and ‘Chillingly Prescient’.

  5. Sounds like that will be a real shot in the arm (or thereabouts), Andrew. But what – no requirement to take into account the factors ‘By turns, funny and moving’ and of course ‘Too good to win the Booker Prize’? Very shortsighted if you ask me.

    Dgr, I suppose that shows my limited viewpoint, because I don’t think any book of any type should hand the reader everything on a plate. The review of Child 44 in the Independent suggested that ‘we’ like to read books like this as a holiday pleasure: well, I don’t. Boring at home is boring away.

    Trevor, we are of one mind again! (Though I think The White Tiger will change that… )

    Max, naturally I nod vigorously at what you say re Ripley. But who is Laidlaw?

  6. I won’t read this one. You and Mookse have convinced me.

    I went to the library to pick up another book and found this one by chance:
    The keeper of antiquities, a novel
    Dombrovskii, ´I`Urii Osipovich.

    I am enjoying it right now. Not set in Moscow, though.

  7. Agreed about the holiday book, John. A strange schizophrenic sense of reality, suggesting that when one’s body does on holiday, it leaves the mind behind.
    Your recommendations are also apt, while I’d add::
    “A good book to read between Sex & the City & Friends.

  8. John, I think it was Stephen King who said that it’s better to open the door a little bit and let the reader imagine what’s going to happen than to explain every little detail ad nauseum. I think I’ll skip this. I’ve wasted my time on too much serial killer fare as it is!

    You have written a wonderful review, as usual.

  9. William McIlvanney wrote Laidlaw, he was originally a Scottish writer of literary fiction who in the late 70s wrote Laidlaw which was a novel named after the detective who is its protagonist. Apparently he got a fair bit of stick for it, being seen at the time as having left literary fiction to go downmarket into crime, his view was that he was able through genre to reach readers that otherwise would not be reading literary fiction,

    Laidlaw is a form of hardboiled novel, think Chandler say, but set in then contemporary Glasgow and with a fierce Scottish socialist (I’d say Glaswegian socialist even) ethos to it. After writing three Laidlaw novels, he has now returned to what would generally be considered literary fiction. I believe he also writes poetry, though I haven’t read any of his as yet.

    I’ve read Laidlaw and the follow-up The Papers of Tony Veitch. Personally I think they’re extremely powerful works and not at all conventional crime. In Laidlaw the criminal, who is identified to us early on, rapes and murders a young woman and yet we are invited in the novel to see him as a victim also and as we investigate the girl’s life to see her family and circumstances as in some ways more blameworthy than the actual killer. It’s complex stuff, without easy answers, in a way we are collectively held to blame for making the killer what he is, we are each responsible for the other and there is no easy demonisation of that we would prefer to regard as simply evil.

    The Papers of Tony Veitch contains a real manifesto of the socialist response to existentialism, if any of our lives are to matter then all our lives must matter, even that of a homeless alcoholic. In some ways, McIlvanney’s the anti-Derek Raymond. He writes about the same world, but without the desire to shock that Raymond suffers from a bit and with very different views on how we should respond to the existence of that world.

  10. Thanks Max. Of course McIlvanney I’ve heard of – I was looking at his recent novel Weekend not so long ago in the bookshop, trying to work out why his name was so familiar. I was asking elsewhere (after the disappointment of Child 44) about recommended crime fiction this week, so I will have to bear Laidlaw in mind. Glaswegian Socialist fiction sounds like something I haven’t seen outside Alasdair Gray!

  11. I didn’t even want to read this book anyway. It wasn’t even on my list. I have started slogging through the Exploding Mangoes and am not happy. I thought this one would be really amusing but it is not amusing me. I am totally unqualified to criticize the actual writing but the story has me snoozing. I shall persevere in hopes that it will improve – I am only on page 81. Thanks to you and DGR for doing the slog work through the bad ones. I am only allowed two online book purchases per month these days per my husband. I am trying to save his sanity and our credit so I have to be choosy.

  12. Thanks, John, for reading this book so I don’t have to. I appreciate the entertaining and thoughtful review.
    Books like this are written with an eye to pasteurizing a product for the multiplex and have little to do with actual writing. They are sort of inter-products; neither realised novels or produced films, just place holders for future opportunities to waste money and time.
    If you can find it, Jim Thompson’s SAVAGE NIGHT would be a tart and tasty palate cleanser. I don’t think it’s 150 pages long but this story of a short, baby faced killer with TB in a western US town packs a punch while being wildly experimental.

  13. Interesting, as always, John. I was away when the longlist was announced, so was surprised to see Child 44 on it upon my return if only because I’d relegated it to the “block buster” genre. Admittedly, I bought a copy a couple of months ago when it was Amazon’s Deal of the Week (about £7 for the hardcover), because I’d read a few positive reviews of it online. I have yet to crack it open though. Your review has only piqued my interest.

  14. Great review, John. But I’m wondering how this book had made to the long list. Are the judges really reading the books these days, or is it a wishy-washy panel this year?

  15. Great review of the talked about Booker book this year. I thought your point about ‘it leaves the reader with nothing to contribute’ was very interesting. I think that really hits the spot about what is good literature (and actually I also prefer films that allow me to bring something to them). Its about creating a space between the author the text and the audience. Otherwise you are just a spectator.

    I think your review sounds very fair, but pretty much what I expected. I don’t feel that thrillers have no place on the Booker list, but they have to be thrillers that are doing something a little bit more than the basic formula.

    Having said that I do plan to read this if I get through those I’ve already got, which is more than I can say about the Rushdie…

  16. Thanks for the comments everyone. Mrinal, I have no idea what possessed the judges to put this on the list: other than they must have liked it better than 90 or so other books that they read. Which doesn’t inspire confidence for the shortlist and winner.

    Jem and kimbofo, I look forward to reading what you think if and when you get around to it (I was going to say, Don’t hurry, but perhaps on reflection you should, as at least people are talking about it right now which is more than they will be in a few months’ time!).

    Candy, I was looking forward to the Hanif, so I hope it picks up for you!

    Christopher, thanks for the recommendation. Someone mentioned Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me this week – in fact a few people did – so I will have a look for his stuff generally.

  17. I do sort of understand the ‘holiday reading’ thing. I sneakily enjoy really awfully-written crime novels occasionally (think James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell), and I enjoy them purely because I don’t have to think about them. The paperbacks are dead cheap, if you’ll pardon the pun, second-hand, and usually cheaper than your average glossy mag.

    For reading without brainpower, crime novels for me replace pages of ladies spring fashions, if that makes sense. Child 44 I was looking forward to purely on that basis, but now it’s a Booker Book and I feel like I have to judge it on a separate level. What would have been a quick diversion from my “proper” reading has turned into something else.

    On the basis of 200 pages I’m not saying TRS is as bad a writer as Patterson et al, but he’s not a million miles away.

  18. I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with pure genre fiction, or indeed fiction aimed purely at entertainment, I enjoy a lot of pure genre stuff including some that is very definitely at the entertainment end. Not every novel needs to help us engage with the human condition (whatever that may be). I think we can (and sometimes should) have different criteria for different types of book.

    I think as Kirsty says though the issue here is that once it’s a Booker Book we have to look at it slightly differently than we would have when it was simply a thriller, I approach a Booker longlistee differently to how I approach a (for example) sf space opera that a friend recommends to me as being good fun. I go in with different (and higher) expectations. Here that actually works to the book’s disadvantage, because instead of enjoying it as intended (as an escapist thriller) we engage with it at a level it doesn’t actually seek to support. We eat an apple, and criticise it for its lack of citrusy goodness, but we do so because it’s now being marketed as an orange.

    Still, I don’t think anyone is saying thrillers or crime novels or whatever can’t be Booker longlistees, it seems it really is this one specifically the issue is with. I have Sputnik Caledonia at home waiting to be read, presumably the judges thought Child 44 a better novel, which I find a tad worrying (in what it says about the judges, not what it says about Sputnik Caledonia). But then, it doesn’t look like it’s shaping up to be a great year.

    John, Jim Thompson is very well regarded. I’d also suggest They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy which I would personally view as one of the greatest crime novels of all time. It’s also only 122 pages, which means that at least if you hate it it’s over quickly (actually, good crime tends to be brief, it’s a genre which rewards brevity of style).

  19. Your review says everything about Child 44 that I should have said. My own review is a bit angrier than yours. Basically, I don’t think it’s very good crime fiction, let alone good literature.

  20. Agreed CB. It’s rubbish from start to finish, essentially. I don’t understand where the place is for books like this: not just on the Booker list, but on shelves generally. Each to his own I suppose. I did quite want to get angrier, but thought I might have a fighting chance of retaining the moral high ground if I made a more reasonable case.

  21. Leaving aside its unwarranted Booker nomination, books like this are simple entertainment surely? It’s the literary equivalent of CSI or Spooks, shows which are not designed to challenge the viewer or to say anything profound but simply to divert. On a cinematic analogy, this is like Casino Royale (I’m aware there’s a book obviously, I reviewed it on my blog, it’s not very good) rather than say Cachet.

    The oddity is not the existence of a formulaic novel aimed purely at entertainment, that probably describes most novels (just as it would describe most tv or cinema), the oddity is its inclusion in the Booker longlist. The effect of that is people come along expecting Heimat, but instead find they are watching Allo Allo.

  22. Yes I take the point Max (though as mentioned above, I hated the movie Casino Royale too and similarly wondered what the point of it was). I have nothing against pure unadorned entertainment, but to be worth bothering with surely that should be a work of brilliance in itself (in literary terms, say, Wodehouse, in TV terms, something by David Renwick or early Simpsons), and therefore the equal of anything more ‘serious’. I think kirsty’s comment earlier is helpful:

    For reading without brainpower, crime novels for me replace pages of ladies spring fashions

    So maybe it’s some (unnatural?) reverence I place on books, viewing them as works which should aspire to permanence, because I like a flick through the glossy mag on holiday as much as anyone else, but would never buy a book for the same purpose(lessness).

  23. I can’t call any reverence for books irrational John, and I certainly don’t want to end up defending mindless literature. I was really just indicating where I think it sits in the literary ecosystem, as you saw from my Andrew Martin blog entry I get a bit unsatisfied myself if I finish a book and think it little more than an exercise in following a formula.

    Casino Royale does seem a definite comparator, I think your review was spot on with that, perhaps next year the Bourne Mandate (or whatever the next one gets called) will follow Child 44’s trailblazing path and be nominated for Cannes…

  24. I found Child 44 and The Sea of Poppies on CD in my local remaindered bookshop, so bought them in this format in order to extend my Bookertime, as I could listen to them while doing other things. Child 44 is abridged (6 CDs running to ca 6 1/2 hours) and they were read by Dennis Boutsikaris in a deep American accent overlaid (in dialogue) with a lugubrious cod Russian one.

    On the whole, TRS delivers what he set out to do, and the fact that the book was nominated for the Booker has exposed it to the sort of reader who would not normally tackle this genre. That’s not the author’s fault. Maybe the judges want to prove by the inclusion of this book that there really is “something for everybody” on the Longlist. I don’t think that this book will make the Shortlist, but I do applaud TRS’s managing to surprise me so much in the last few pages, rather in the same way achieved by Susan Hill in The Vows od Silence.

  25. I do applaud TRS’s managing to surprise me so much in the last few pages

    In what way were you surprised? Even Scooby Doo villains had a more believable modus operandi.

  26. *!SPOILER ALERT!* I was surprised by the murderer’s identity being the child who was taken, and supposedly murdered, at the beginning of the book.


    Well then I’ve got another surprise for you Curzon! To the best of my recollection, the murderer was not the child who was taken – that was Leo/Pavel – but his brother, who was left behind (Andrius).

  28. Frankly after 6+ hours of Russo – American subaqua burblings from Boutsikaris, I’m not too surprised that I got the brother’s names muddled! Of course I have no hard copy to check this out, but may flip through a copy next time I’m in a bookshop. Whichever it was, they were firmly on the side of the victims in my mind and not candidates for protagonist.
    Curzon (deep in “The Clothes on their backs” today)

  29. I personally found this book very gripping and a good scorce of factual information. TRS managed to give us facts and a good insight to what life was like when living in Soviet Russia at the time.

  30. well ! as usual a review steeped in personal deluded ‘i understand literature more than readers ‘ review. this book has actually been a film already under a different name and the reasons for the crimes have a much deeper background than stated here, anything that touches on what life was like in soviet Russia holds a fascination and any knowledge of the country helps to explain this for literary prizes get a grip, enjoy the suspension of reality for a week and dive into this book i think it ranks along there with Gorky Park.

    1. Thanks for your comment John. According to IMDb, the film of Child 44 (directed by Ridley Scott) is due to be released this year, and in any event, my review was posted in 2008, shortly after the book was published.

      Your own liking for the book needn’t be threatened by one negative review: I’m just another reader, after all, even if “deluded.” I’m not sure what you mean by “as usual” either, as most of my posts offer praise for books rather than negative responses. Still, if you stick around, as Billy Bragg said, I’m sure that we can find some common ground.

    2. Hi John,

      Just to back you up about your comment,

      There are two films loosely based on andrea chikatillo they are:
      Citizen x (which was a book about the investigation) made in 1994 and Evilenko (2004), which was even more loosely based on the murders/ investigation.

      Its on wikipedia …. By the way I too enjoyed this book and the subsequent books although Agent 6 takes a while to get interesting as Leo is only on on the rampage after about a hundred pages.


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