I’ll say right out that I have not seen the movie, but I’m quite surprised to hear that the movie itself flopped.
Because Child 44 was written, it seems, for the screen.
It’s Stalinist Russia in the early ’50s. The main character is a hero of the Great Patriotic War and a member of the MGB – the Stalinist secret police. He believes in his work; he believes in the Soviet Union. But his life unravels when he makes a connection between the gruesome deaths of children as the work of one man; a serial killer.
Child 44 sets up a classic police procedural/serial killer thriller, but instead of slick science labs, lawyers, and SWAT teams, it’s one man against the entire Soviet system.
I was deeply intrigued by the idea of a thriller set in the Soviet Union: watching a secret, totalitarian police organization chase down a serial killer seemed to me a brilliant re-invention of the whole serial killer trope; it’s much more interesting when you have no idea what you are up against. There was also the ideological under-pinnings of the book; because the Soviet system cannot admit that it has real crime (the logic being that because The People own everything, there is therefore nothing to steal), how can it mobilise itself against this dark individual?
This poster for the movie below does a great job of selling the hook here:
Alas, I’m afraid it doesn’t quiet live up to its own expectations, nor the movie poster.
Tom Rob Smith is a very direct writer; you are never left to think for yourself for very long before he comes along and explains everything right away. Do you detect that things are strained between the main character and his wife? Tom Rob Smith will let you know exactly what’s going on in the very next sentence; the book reads like a screen play with heavy, heavy narration.
What Tom Rob Smith should have done was read Franz Kafka, taken very close notes from Graham Greene and then have The Prisoner on in the background of when he was writing when he did Child 44. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Child 44; it just doesn’t attain brilliance. At no point did I feel afraid for the main characters; I got no further than a sort of “well, that’s a tight spot to be in”. The secret police is evil; there is torture but the whole effect isn’t surreal or sinister. The whole terror apparatus of the Soviet State comes crashing down around them, but you never really notice.
Very enjoyable, and a decent introduction to the reality of Stalinist Russia.