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
exceptional year for debuts. Firstly we had Stieg Larsson’s
the Dragon Tattoo from Quercus which blew me away.
Now we have Child
44 which I first heard hushed rumours, whispered at
rights centre at the 2007 London
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,
hyped-up debuts never live up to the PR budget. But an article from
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
best fair ever. In a new home at Earls
(having previously been at Olympia in
2005 - a
site which the fair’s increasing international
reputation soon outgrew)
International Book Fair saw record attendances and a huge volume of
being generated. PFD fielded a large team in the International
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.
Scott snapped up the film rights 48 hours before the fair began and
Adult Foreign Rights Director, Jessica Craig, and Tom Rob
agent, James Gill, were soon beseiged by publishers keen to read and
bid for this
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
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
the book in a single sitting. Why is this debut so bewitching? Firstly
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
crime exists in the communist nirvana they project to the West. Then
the characters themselves. Leo Demidov a respected secret policeman and
wife Raisa who find themselves on the wrong-end of state politics when
of a murdered child turns to obsession. They discover that the death on
railway-track was not an accident that the authorities concluded. Nor
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
cruelty of the instruments of the state oppressing the people with the
of the Gulag, contrasted against the compassion and strength of the
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
Vasili Ilyich Nikitin] when an operation to capture a soviet veterinary
[and suspected spy] goes terribly wrong. The brutality of this book is
but is placed into context of the terrible extremes of the Stalinist
is in the darkness, a warmth and insight into the good within people
against the tyranny.
The novel feels very well researched, but the
level of detail is not thrown in your face, but rather subtly painted
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;
times brings you to tears such is the power of the remarkable talent of
Mr Smith. I was however concerned whether the ambition of the first
this tale would be sustained in the later half, and the answer is a
yes. The tension and terror of this novel is striated evenly throughout
narrative until the chilling and satisfying denouement. Consider this
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
of spoiling one of this years greatest literary treats. Believe the
feel the terror as Child 44 delivers a stunningly original twist in a
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
Scott’s certainly not planning on many
holidays in his future. Not content with editing his latest, crime
American Gangster and preparing to shoot spy epic Penetration with
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
stumbles on a series of child killings and vows to investigate them,
even if it
means he’ll be captured and killed.”
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
“There were at least
two other bidders for the film
rights to the thriller, including another major. Smith's yet-to-be
novel, due out in 2008, was sold at auction in the U.S. to
Books in a two-book deal that contemplates a sequel. Simon &
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.”
first territorial release was in Germany where it zoomed to #3 on the
hardcover bestseller lists after selling over 40,000 copies in the
weeks of release, which is a remarkable achievement for a debut novel
writer so damned young.
Back in the UK, I just
The Bookseller that Smith’s novel will be ubiquitous in terms
placement with the supermarket chains grabbing it with alacrity. The
are not sitting idle either as they are planning a huge advertising
help with the arrival of this remarkable novel -
is published on 3rd March and 30,000 copies of the book have been
retailers. The title will go straight into Sainsbury's, Asda and
display. It will be promoted front of store at W H Smith and placed in
chart, with the travel wing putting it into its 2 for £20
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
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
think as a child I made any distinction between the appeal of watching
and television, as opposed to reading books. I’m not sure I
distinction now. I wanted to work in fiction, making stuff up, creating
- 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
becoming a writer.
AK : So who encouraged your reading and future
TRS : 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
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
AK : I see that you started as a screen-writer,
so can you tell us a
little about why screen-writing appealed to you?
TRS : 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
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
started writing movie scripts. Screenwriting is very disciplined.
that discipline, I hope, has crossed over into my prose writing.
AK : And pivotal films that made an impression
on your psyche?
TRS : Anything by Spielberg, Lucas, Robert
Zemecki and later on James
Cameron, Ridley Scott: I like big adventure stories, which, in some
how I see Child 44.
AK : I understand you wrote in Cambodia. How did that come about?
TRS : I was hired by the BBC World Service
Trust to help storyline Cambodia’s
opera. The BBC WST sets up these soaps to transmit important health
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
AK : What other screen-writing projects have
you been associated with?
TRS : I adapted a really great Jeff
short story called Somewhere The Shadow which is
currently with a film
company called Qwerty who have just produced The Duchess.
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.
AK : I heard in your afterward that Child
44 was inspired by the
real life Russian serial killer Andrei
can you tell us how that all came about?
TRS : 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
“made safe”. I stumbled across the real life case
of Andrei Chikatilo and I
thought it would make the great basis for a story.
AK : What is it about serial killers that you
think appeals to readers
and film goers alike?
TRS : There is the puzzle element: killers
leaving clues and detectives
trying to piece the clues together. That side is always fun but a
story can also cut into society in an interesting way. The case
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
AK : 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?
TRS : Most of my reading for Child 44
has been non-fiction rather
than say other thrillers. More generally, I’ve never really
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.
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
Child, Scott Turow.
AK : The novel appears heavily researched; are
you interested in the
Stalinist period of Russian history? I also thought you might also be
with Orwell’s 1984, am I right?
TRS : 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.
AK : 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
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
critical. They’re the reason you care.
AK : Sometimes the most despicable traits of
villains are not always the
most visceral. I found the scene when Vasili and his men ransack Leo
apartment, while Leo watches Vasili rummage through Raisa’s
the contents probably the most disturbing and repellent part of the
would you agree?
TRS : Yes, that is horrible! You’re
right though, paradoxically
depictions of violence can often become less disturbing the more
AK : The plotting is complex, did that mean you
had to plot extensively beforehand?
TRS : 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
changes as I went along.
AK : On a technical note I see you abandoned
the “speech marks” and
instead reverted to italics preceded by a dash to represent dialogue.
due to your screen-writing bias or perhaps the idea of showing a
Translation” or for some other reason?
TRS : 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
AK : So tell me how you got Child 44 into
print as it was subject
to many hype-fueled rumours following the London
Fair last year?
TRS : 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.
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
AK : Did you write Child 44
originally as a screenplay as it does
flow in a very cinematic format?
TRS : 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,
suggestion of my film agent.
AK : And the film rights? Have you had any
involvement in the film
TRS : It was sent out my agent St John Donald
(United Agents) and Bob
Bookman (CAA). The same process again, I think there were three
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
AK : I see you are represented by PFD in the UK and by CAA
US for film
So how has all the recent controversy at Literary Agency PFD affected
did the recent US
strike affect your own work?
TRS : 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
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
AK : The legendary Robert
Towne spoke very highly of the book, what was his involvement
the work to market?
TRS : 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
phone and he had some great ideas. I fed lots of his thoughts into the
during the editing process. Robert Towne has been incredibly generous
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
(small) thanks for taking the time to talk to me back in April 2007.
AK : At times the book shows great compassion
despite the dark subject
material, so how careful were you to ensure you didn’t fall
TRS : 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.
AK : I see you have travelled extensively so
how important is travel to
broadening a writers canvas?
TRS : 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.
AK : Have you sold rights for a Russian edition?
TRS : No…I think we’re at
twenty-six countries so far but not to Russia.
AK : And what are you working on currently as
the ending leaves the door
open for Leo and Raisa Demidov to return?
TRS : 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.
AK : Do you feel any pressure to deliver book
#2 after so much advance
expectation of this debut?
TRS : 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
I have the pressure of meeting expectations, which is, in many ways, a
easier pressure to deal with than the pressure of writing a first book.
AK : And
books have passed your reading table recently?
TRS : 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
edition collection of The Gulag Archipelago.
I’d previously only read
the Harvill abridged version so now I’m reading the missing
AK : And
you do to relax?
TRS : 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
promotion is done on Child 44, I’m
thinking about buying a dog.
44, Simon & Schuster
UK Hbk March Hbk £12.99
you live the
States you’ll have to wait until April (Grand Central).
wish to thank Joe Pickering of Simon and Schuster
for organising this interview and also Tom Rob Smith who answered our
despite being jet-lagged.
edited extract of this interview first appeared at The