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True story of Soviet serial killer inspires gripping thriller

| Sunday, May 18, 2008

It's not too often that a foray into science fiction leads to a novel about a serial killer in Stalinist Russia. But Tom Rob Smith made the leap from a surrealistic scenario to a grim, nearly forgotten episode of Russian history that was stunning in scope.

While trying to adapt a Jeff Noon short story for film, Smith came across the story of a man who murdered more than 60 children in Russia between the late 1970s and 1990.

"I wondered why I didn't know about this amazing period," Smith says,

Smith wasn't the only one unfamiliar with Andrei Chikatilo's gruesome acts. Officially, the Soviet regime refused to acknowledge aberrations such as serial killers; often, men with mental disabilities were blamed for his actions -- sometimes, they willingly confessed -- until Chikatilo was caught and admitted his crimes.

Smith originally envisioned the story as a treatment for a screenplay before his agent convinced him to try writing a novel. For purposes of fiction, Smith decided to set his novel in the 1950s because of the nature of the era and how the book's protagonist, Sgt. Leo Stepanovich Demidov of the state security agency MGB (later the KGB), would be able to react to the killings.

"In terms of the threats to our main character, he wouldn't have been as limited (in the '70s and '80s)," Smith says. "I just thought for a thriller, the stakes would have been higher in the '50s than in the '80s. If you didn't do your job the right way, you probably lost your life."

"Child 44" is Smith's first novel, but he's not a writing novice. He has worked in television in Great Britain and in Cambodia, where he supervised that country's first soap opera for the BBC World Service. Then there's the scriptwriting, which accidentally turned him into a novelist who, voila, sold the film rights of his debut to Ridley Scott, the director of "Gladiator" and "Blade Runner."

Which is pretty fantastic, Smith admits, given that there are few directors other than Scott who he could imagine bringing such a complex story to life.

While the setting of the book is visually and historically interesting, Smith was more interested in "the moral dilemmas, the emotional crises," faced by the characters. What struck him most was an "incredible sense of frustration" of how the murders were perceived and handled.

"I was trying to capture the devastation that people must have experienced," Smith says. "I felt that very strongly. This was a situation where the state is more interested in how things ought to be rather than catching the person who did such a thing. In most societies, the emphasis would be on catching a person who killed children, a serial killer, but this was not the case."

Demidov is drawn into the story when he is asked to investigate the death of a colleague's young son. His verdict is that of the state: It was an accident, not a murder. But when Demidov's wife, Raisa, is implicated in a plot against the state, his life spins off-kilter. Demidov and Raisa become enemies of the state and are banished to a remote village. There, Demidov's moral compass compels him to further investigate what he believes to be evidence of a serial killer.

Smith says he was trying to illustrate how impossibly hard it was for a man like Demidov to do the right thing in such daunting circumstances.

"I'm interested in people who are trying to find some light in all this darkness," he says, "who wage an impossible struggle to do the right thing."

Smith's book has tapped into memories imbedded in those who lived through and survived the Stalinist regime. At the book party for the British launch of "Child 44," Smith met a woman from the Ukraine who had lived through that era. She told him that every time she heard the braying sirens of British police cars, she was taken back to her former life when every day, every moment, was underscored with fear.

Smith was glad he was able to evoke a time when people lived "incredibly dramatic lives," but was also a bit nervous about stirring up old memories.

"I don't want readers to feel there was some sort of agenda on the pages of the book," he says. "For this particular story, the angle is the hero is a Russian, (and) the heroine is a Russian, who happened to live in this era." Additional Information:

'Child 44'

Author : Tom Rob Smith

Publisher : Grand Central, $24.99, 439 pages

Capsule review : A knock at the door, a stranger across the street and a ringing telephone are portents that lead to terror in Tom Rob Smith's debut novel, 'Child 44.' Set in the U.S.S.R. in the 1950s, the plot involves a string of killings of children that the state claims are not serial murders, but accidents. Leo Stepanovich Demidov, an operative with the state security apparatus, goes against his self-interests to investigate these crimes, putting his life -- and his wife's -- in danger.

Smith's narrative is compelling and his writing crisp in what is one of the year's best debut novels.

-- Regis Behe

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