Funny how Child 44 (the movie) kind of dropped off the radar. Visually (judging from the trailer and the handful of stills I’ve seen) it looks absolutely fantastic, and what a cast – Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman and even Paddy Considine. But then it all went quiet and the film came out a few months ago without me even knowing. Well I checked out some reviews and, other than a few glowing ones, the movie scores a pretty low average. Okay, that doesn’t necessarily mean much. I’ll reserve my judgement until I’ve seen it, but in the meantime, I was able to read the book and I can tell you it’s a cracker – the manliest novel I’ve read since First Blood.
Leo Demidov is a model citizen of the Stalinist era. A celebrated WWII veteran who went on to join the MGB. It’s his job to put down enemies of the state in the totalitarian world of 1950s Russia, where suspicion equals guilt and confessions are extracted with brutal efficiency. He’s idealistic and dedicated to the cause, reasoning that if a few innocent people suffer it’s worth it in the grand scheme of things. When he’s ordered to help cover-up the gruesome murder of a child he does it without hesitation, attending the grieving family to offer his condolences, whilst insisting that the death of their child was an accident, or else. Later, when he falls foul of the system himself, for failing to denounce his wife as a traitor, he’s demoted to the status of a lowly member of the milita (local police force) and shipped out to a dreary industrial town in the middle of nowhere. There, he quickly discovers more murders like the one he helped to cover up in Moscow. Having lost his faith in the country, or it’s ruling powers at least, and ashamed of the evil deeds he formerly carried out in the name of the State, he vows to track down the killer, even though merely admitting that such a crime could happen in the midst of the great workers’ utopia is a capital offence.
Author Tom Rob Smith has clearly done his homework. The story is loosely based on the deeds of real life serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, which also inspired the 1995 film Citizen X starring Donald Sutherland and Max von Sydow. The historical details are impressive. The early descriptions of the famine are extremely harrowing and realistic, such as a woman on the brink of death desperately gnawing at a chair-leg and two boys trying to catch a scrawny cat to eat, whilst later all the grim horrors of living under a totalitarian regime are effectively put across. If anything, Smith has gone a bit overboard throwing in all the Stalinist/totalitarian tropes – the Lubyanka, where people go in but they never come out, the interrogations and the torture, the informers, the executions, the corruption, the gulags, the state run orphanages where kids learn to live like wild animals just to survive. It’s all grim and depressing and very Orwellian and it was never going to improve relations between Russia and the West, no wonder Putin banned it!
Add to that a pretty good plot. The hunt for the child-killer is just the backbone. There are sub-plots concerning the complex relationships between the characters, rivalry, brotherhood and betrayal, it’s really compulsive reading, nearly 500 pages, but I got through it in no time at all. It’s the first part of a trilogy, but you could easily see this being the first part in a much longer series if the author wanted to pursue it. I’ll certainly read the next one in the series “The Secret Speech” although judging by how successful the film version of Child 44 hasn’t been, I guess it’s not likely that we’ll see any more adaptations any time soon.
Hunger Games/The Maze Runner this ‘aint. I’m definitely going to check out the film when I get the chance, with such a solid story and cast I’m struggling to imagine how it could be that bad, even if the put-on Russian accents might not have been the best idea. As for the book, it’s great – highly recommended.