Think of Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel, Child 44, as a prequel to Martin Cruz Smith’s classic mystery Gorky Park. Set in the Soviet Union in 1953, it follows a State Security officer named Leo who realizes the evil behind the regime he’s been serving when a serial killer goes uncaught—because, by official edict, in the glorious Soviet republic “There is no crime.” The novel is based partially on the case of a real serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, who killed dozens in the Soviet Union in the eighties. Dan Kois talked with screenwriter turned novelist Smith.
What interested you about Andrei Chikatilo?
He wasn’t a criminal genius, this kind of Moriarty-like figure who’s outwitting everyone. It was just that the system was set up so that he could kill anyone with impunity because no one would even admit that he existed.
Why did you move the story back in time?
In Stalinist Russia, there was this danger everywhere, all the time—whether it was getting into bed, whether it was talking in front of your children, whether it was talking so that your neighbors could hear through the walls. In most serial-killer stories, the killer is the source of threat, the danger, whereas in this story the source of threat is the state.
Leo’s very different from the traditional detective-story hero. He needs to believe he’s making the world a better place.
Well, he’s earnest, and detectives are almost never earnest. They’re always wry and cynical and perceptive— I mean, that’s the point of being a detective, is you can see through things. The opposite is true for Leo; he can’t see through anything. But that’s why Raisa, his wife, is so important. She pulls back the wool from his eyes.
Between the two of them they make one whole detective.
Basically, yeah. She is that classic side of the detective, very perceptive and astute.
And he’s the dogged pursuer.
You’re a screenwriter with some odd credits on your résumé.
I was the story-liner for the first-ever Cambodian soap opera. I was sent out there to work with a small group of Cambodian writers: very smart men and women, but they hadn’t really written for TV before, because there was no TV industry as such—they just had karaoke videos and imported Thai movies. The soap was created to get these health messages across—Cambodia has a very high rate of HIV infection. But there was a big debate over how explicit the messages should be.
Did you get complaints?
There were some odd censorship issues. We had a pregnant teenager, and that was fine. We had an abortion story; we didn’t get into trouble with that. The only thing that sort of raised eyebrows was a gay character. Predictably, we were told that there were no gay people in Cambodia.
And there was no crime in the Soviet Union.
Right. But we made the episode anyway.