In my reviewing pile came a book I had been anticipating since last year. Books preceded by hype usually put me off; but 2008 is shaping up as an exceptional year for debuts. Firstly we had Stieg Larsson’s stunning The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from Quercus which blew me away.
Now we have Child 44 which I first heard hushed rumours, whispered at the international rights centre at the 2007 London Book Fair. But after all the excitement of speaking to Dean Koontz via Margaret Atwood’s LongPen, the book slipped my mind, besides when I hear a load of hype, I often shrug my shoulders and smile, because many hyped-up debuts never live up to the PR budget. But an article from Simon Trewin made me curious. It seems that the troubled literary agency PFD which has been the news almost as much as their authors signed up the young Tom Rob Smith as Trewin reports on his blog -
“After the terrible experiences of the 2006 London Book Fair at ExCel in Docklands where nothing seemed to go right at all it was a joy to return to West London for what many attendees agree was the best fair ever. In a new home at Earls Court (having previously been at Olympia in 2005 - a site which the fair’s increasing international reputation soon outgrew) the London International Book Fair saw record attendances and a huge volume of business being generated. PFD fielded a large team in the International Rights Centre with Tom Rob Smith’s thriller Child 44 scooping the pool as the hottest book of the fair with a large number of deals being done worldwide. Ridley Scott snapped up the film rights 48 hours before the fair began and PFD’s new Adult Foreign Rights Director, Jessica Craig, and Tom Rob Smith’s literary agent, James Gill, were soon beseiged by publishers keen to read and bid for this exceptional debut.”
Even so, Literary Agents can get wrapped and trapped in their own hype, however Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 does not fall into that category. When I spoke to Lee Child recently he was equally excited by the novel and provided a ‘blurb’ calling it "An amazing debut - rich, different, fully-formed, mature ... and thrilling."
So please trust me on this novel and believe the hype; this novel is in a word STUNNING. It takes the tired and clichéd serial-killer genre, and twists it completely out of shape with the result – a book that is as original as it is terrifying and here’s why [with no spoilers] :-
I was sceptical holding the review copy in my hands; especially as it was a debut of such a young and unknown writer who is a couple of years shy of his 30th birthday.
My opinion after reading Child 44? A remarkably brilliant debut that had me clutching the book with both hands as if my life depended upon me completing the book in a single sitting. Why is this debut so bewitching? Firstly the backdrop of Stalin’s cruel regime that enslaved the Russian people in poverty and paranoia. This setting is a most interesting canvas to pitch the hunt of a child-murdering serial killer as the Russian-state refuses to believe that crime exists in the communist nirvana they project to the West. Then there’s the characters themselves. Leo Demidov a respected secret policeman and his wife Raisa who find themselves on the wrong-end of state politics when the case of a murdered child turns to obsession. They discover that the death on a railway-track was not an accident that the authorities concluded. Nor is the death an isolated case for a trail of child murder snakes along Russia’s railway system showing the work of a deranged mind or minds. Then we have the cruelty of the instruments of the state oppressing the people with the threat of the Gulag, contrasted against the compassion and strength of the human spirit.
Loosely based on the case of prolific Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, we find Leo and Raisa exiled from their privileged home in Moscow to the freezing hinterlands. Leo finds himself under scrutiny from his superiors due to professional jealously from a subordinate [the banally evil Vasili Ilyich Nikitin] when an operation to capture a soviet veterinary surgeon [and suspected spy] goes terribly wrong. The brutality of this book is shocking but is placed into context of the terrible extremes of the Stalinist era. There is in the darkness, a warmth and insight into the good within people struggling against the tyranny.
The novel feels very well researched, but the level of detail is not thrown in your face, but rather subtly painted into the plot, enriching the narrative and making the hunt for a serial killer take on a fresh dimension. Child 44 at times is harrowing; at times terrifying; and at times brings you to tears such is the power of the remarkable talent of young Mr Smith. I was however concerned whether the ambition of the first half of this tale would be sustained in the later half, and the answer is a resounding yes. The tension and terror of this novel is striated evenly throughout the narrative until the chilling and satisfying denouement. Consider this debut to be part Martin Cruz Smith, part Thomas Harris, part Robert Harris with a smattering of George Orwell. I really do not want to reveal any more for fear of spoiling one of this years greatest literary treats. Believe the hype and feel the terror as Child 44 delivers a stunningly original twist in a genre that I considered having very few surprises. Tom Rob Smith is a name that is blinking blood-red on my future reading radar, Bravo!
I’m not the only one who thinks this debut is bewitching, because Ridley Scott scooped the film rights as reported by Total Film
“Ridley Scott’s certainly not planning on many holidays in his future. Not content with editing his latest, crime drama American Gangster and preparing to shoot spy epic Penetration with Leonardo DiCaprio, he’s just attached himself to yet another possible project - an adaptation of Tom Rob Smith’s novel Child 44.
As usual, it’s a book that hasn’t even hit the shelves yet, but Smith’s tome follows a secret police officer being framed by one of his fellow coppers for treason. But while on the run with his wife, he stumbles on a series of child killings and vows to investigate them, even if it means he’ll be captured and killed.”
Variety reports that the rights were part of a two-book deal and after reading Child 44 I can see how Tom Rob Smith has left the door open for a sequel –
“There were at least two other bidders for the film rights to the thriller, including another major. Smith's yet-to-be published novel, due out in 2008, was sold at auction in the U.S. to Warner Books in a two-book deal that contemplates a sequel. Simon & Schuster will publish in the U.K.
“Scott Free president Michael Costigan and senior VP of production Michael Ellenberg brought in the project. At Fox 2000, Carla Hacken helped drive the deal.”
Child 44’s first territorial release was in Germany where it zoomed to #3 on the hardcover bestseller lists after selling over 40,000 copies in the first three weeks of release, which is a remarkable achievement for a debut novel by a writer so damned young.
Back in the UK, I just heard from The Bookseller that Smith’s novel will be ubiquitous in terms of sales placement with the supermarket chains grabbing it with alacrity. The publishers are not sitting idle either as they are planning a huge advertising campaign to help with the arrival of this remarkable novel -
The novel is published on 3rd March and 30,000 copies of the book have been supplied to retailers. The title will go straight into Sainsbury's, Asda and Tesco's charts display. It will be promoted front of store at W H Smith and placed in its chart, with the travel wing putting it into its 2 for £20 promotion. Sainsbury's will be promoting Simon & Schuster's much-hyped literary thriller Child 44 at its check-outs, the first time it has done so with a hardback title.
Joe Pickering at Simon and Schuster [UK] managed to drag the author to a phone line when he returned from his recent meetings in Los Angeles to give us load-down on how he birthed his novel. Before we begin, I’ll just say three words – Believe The Hype – this debut is truly scary and the insight into the good and bad that lurks at the core of human-beings deeply penetrating.
Ali Karim : Can you tell us a little about your early reading and the works that inspired you to take up the pen?
Tom Rob Smith : I couldn’t name a single author who made me want to write. There was no epiphany after having finished a particular book. I don’t think as a child I made any distinction between the appeal of watching movies and television, as opposed to reading books. I’m not sure I make any distinction now. I wanted to work in fiction, making stuff up, creating stories - I guess that’s what it boils down to. To that extent, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were probably as influential as Roald Dahl in nudging me towards becoming a writer.
So who encouraged your reading and future writing?
Obviously I owe my parents a great deal. They both ran their own business which they started from scratch so they always understood how difficult being freelance is. I remember, after I’d graduated, and didn’t have much money, I was struggling not to buckle to the pressure of getting a steady job. My parents were very good at persuading me to brave it out.
I should also mention my drama teacher at school, Mr Jolly, gave me a great opportunity – he staged a one hour play that I’d written. I’m very grateful to him. In fact, I’m grateful to all the wonderful teachers I had, in whatever subject.
I see that you started as a screen-writer, so can you tell us a little about why screen-writing appealed to you?
In fact, I started work on long running television shows. My first job was as a story editor on FAMILY AFFAIRS, I then did some work on a drama series, BAD GIRLS. I then started to win some interesting freelance commissions. At that point I was able to work from home, which was when I started writing movie scripts. Screenwriting is very disciplined. Something of that discipline, I hope, has crossed over into my prose writing.
And pivotal films that made an impression on your psyche?
Anything by Spielberg, Lucas, Robert Zemecki and later on James Cameron, Ridley Scott: I like big adventure stories, which, in some ways, is how I see Child 44.
I understand you wrote in Cambodia. How did that come about?
I was hired by the BBC World Service Trust to help storyline Cambodia’s first soap opera. The BBC WST sets up these soaps to transmit important health messages, such as about HIV / AIDS. I spent six months working on the show in Cambodia, writing alongside a team of Khmer writers. The show was a huge hit and an incredible experience.
What other screen-writing projects have you been associated with?
I adapted a really great Jeff Noon short story called Somewhere The Shadow which is currently with a film company called Qwerty who have just produced The Duchess. We’re hoping that movie will go into production sometime soon. It’s a science fiction thriller. I also sold an original script called Put Together to Dan Films and they’re currently trying to attach a director.
I heard in your afterward that Child 44 was inspired by the real life Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, so can you tell us how that all came about?
I was researching Somewhere The Shadow. The short story is about a future world where serial killers can be rendered safe by a neurosurgical procedure. In order to understand what that procedure might be, I had to try and find out what lay behind these crimes, how these people might be “made safe”. I stumbled across the real life case of Andrei Chikatilo and I thought it would make the great basis for a story.
What is it about serial killers that you think appeals to readers and film goers alike?
There is the puzzle element: killers leaving clues and detectives trying to piece the clues together. That side is always fun but a serial killer story can also cut into society in an interesting way. The case embodies something of the society in which the crimes happen – whether its issues of racism, or corruption, or in Child 44, the political ideologies of the time.
And has your own reading taken you into the crime / thriller genre and if so what work in this genre appealed to you and why?
Most of my reading for Child 44 has been non-fiction rather than say other thrillers. More generally, I’ve never really been particularly loyal to any genre. There isn’t any kind of book I wouldn’t read. I guess I feel a little under-read compared to many crime / thriller lovers. I’ve read everything by Thomas Harris: my copy of Silence Of Lambs literally broke apart I read it so many times. Thomas Harris is an incredible writer. Hannibal Lecter is a great character.
I’ve also recently really enjoyed Dan Brown, Dean Koontz, Lee Child, Scott Turow.
The novel appears heavily researched; are you interested in the Stalinist period of Russian history? I also thought you might also be familiar with Orwell’s 1984, am I right?
I hope it doesn’t appear too heavily researched. I was keen to make the research feel light. Yes, Orwell’s novel 1984 is an amazing book, but I can’t say I thought about it very much while I was writing. The world depicted in 1984is very stylised. I’ve tried to make the world of Stalinist Russia feel less far away – this is about real events, and events that took place not that long ago.
The characters are very vibrant from the husband and wife duo of Leo and Raisa Demidov to the villains of the piece such as Vasili, so how critical was it to have so much characterisation?
TRS: If you get the combination of characters right you can draw enormous drama from very confined spaces. It means you don’t always have to stage an action set piece to generate excitement. Characters are absolutely critical. They’re the reason you care.
Sometimes the most despicable traits of villains are not always the most visceral. I found the scene when Vasili and his men ransack Leo Demidov’s apartment, while Leo watches Vasili rummage through Raisa’s underwear, sniffing the contents probably the most disturbing and repellent part of the novel, would you agree?
Yes, that is horrible! You’re right though, paradoxically depictions of violence can often become less disturbing the more graphic it becomes.
The plotting is complex, did that mean you had to plot extensively beforehand?
I was working from a detailed treatment but all the way through I’d be making changes, coming up with better ideas – it’s a combination of both extensive ground work and then abandoning lots of that work and making up changes as I went along.
On a technical note I see you abandoned the “speech marks” and instead reverted to italics preceded by a dash to represent dialogue. Was this due to your screen-writing bias or perhaps the idea of showing a “Russian Translation” or for some other reason?
You’re right on both counts. I was concerned about putting it is speech marks because, obviously, it’s not Russian. And you’re right again: I did want to borrow from screenplays where the dialogue is visually very distinct from the stage directions. I hope that doesn’t come across as just empty experimentalism: I thought it might make the dialogue read easier.
So tell me how you got Child 44 into print as it was subject to many hype-fueled rumours following the London Book Fair last year?
This is a case where the truth is probably less interesting than the rumours. In fact, I’m not even sure I know what the rumours are. It was a very straightforward sale. It was sent out to a clutch of publishers. Three ended up bidding for it and Simon & Schuster UK won. By the time of the London Book Fair it was being bought internationally – those sales proceeded along very similar lines.
Did you write Child 44 originally as a screenplay as it does flow in a very cinematic format?
I wrote it as a treatment. I never wrote the screenplay. Instead of turning it into a screenplay, I turned the treatment into a novel, at the suggestion of my film agent.
And the film rights? Have you had any involvement in the film pre-production?
It was sent out my agent St John Donald (United Agents) and Bob Bookman (CAA). The same process again, I think there were three bidders. Fox and Ridley Scott won. I’ve just met the Fox team when I was in LA. They’re incredible. Although he wasn’t there this time, I’ve had breakfast with Ridley Scott before. He’s a wonderful guy. Very generous and he’s made some of favourite movies of all time. They’ve hired Richard Price to adapt it so it’s in the best possible hands.
I see you are represented by PFD in the UK and by CAA in the US for film rights. So how has all the recent controversy at Literary Agency PFD affected you and did the recent US screen-writers strike affect your own work?
I’m now represented by United Agents for my film rights and Curtis Brown look after the book side. The strike has meant no film or television work. But I’ve been working on the follow-up to Child 44. As a novel the strike hasn’t had an impact on that. Obviously the strike has delayed Richard Price.
The legendary Robert Towne spoke very highly of the book, what was his involvement in getting the work to market?
He read the novel after it had sold. As part of the film submissions he was sent the manuscript by Bob Bookman. We then spoke on the phone and he had some great ideas. I fed lots of his thoughts into the book during the editing process. Robert Towne has been incredibly generous with his time. I met him for the first time last week and he’s just the most wonderful guy, in addition to being a writing hero of mine. I gave him a copy of the UK first edition as (small) thanks for taking the time to talk to me back in April 2007.
At times the book shows great compassion despite the dark subject material, so how careful were you to ensure you didn’t fall into the pathos-trap?
I think I’m quite sentimental. I don’t think of sentimentality as a bad thing. There’s good sentimental and bad sentimental. It’s like anything, you either pull it off, or you don’t. I guess because I’m aware that I have a sentimental streak I’m always looking to make sure it’s kept in balance, and that it never topples into excess.
I see you have travelled extensively so how important is travel to broadening a writers canvas?
I think there’s a danger in thinking that if you travel around the world enough times you’re going to end up with a novel at the bottom of your rucksack. Child 44 is book that owes almost everything to reading and only a tiny amount to travelling.
Have you sold rights for a Russian edition?
No…I think we’re at twenty-six countries so far but not to Russia.
And what are you working on currently as the ending leaves the door open for Leo and Raisa Demidov to return?
I’m working on the follow up to Child 44! I should have it finished in a couple of months. I’m very excited about it.
Do you feel any pressure to deliver book #2 after so much advance expectation of this debut?
The pressures have changed. With the first book I had the pressure of not being paid and wondering if I was wasting my time. With the second book I have the pressure of meeting expectations, which is, in many ways, a much easier pressure to deal with than the pressure of writing a first book.
And what books have passed your reading table recently?
I just finished Kidnapped which I loved, another great adventure story. I don’t know why it’s always seen as a children’s book.
In addition to that, I have a bunch of research books I’m working on. In a second hand bookshop in Seattle I found a first edition collection of The Gulag Archipelago. I’d previously only read the Harvill abridged version so now I’m reading the missing chapters.
And what do you do to relax?
I watch movies. I used to run but I hurt my knee. I live very near the river so I like to walk by the Thames. Once all the promotion is done on Child 44, I’m thinking about buying a dog.
CHILD 44, Simon & Schuster UK Hbk March Hbk £12.99 BUY IT