Good Reading : April 2009
author profile Smith’s first book deals with the hunt for a serial killer, and is loosely based on the notorious Ukrainian child murderer of the 1980s, Andrei Chikatilo, who was executed for killing 52 people. The second book, The Secret Speech, deals with the aftermath of Stalin’s regime, of Russia coming to terms with its inhuman past. But it is the way in which Smith’s character slowly realises that his society is as much the problem as is the murderer, that places these works in a league of their own. John le Carré, in his groundbreaking series of espionage novels dealing George Smiley, is the closest comparison to the work of Tom Rob Smith. Does such comparison with a previous generation’s great thriller writers concern him? Speaking from his home in London, he tells me, ‘It never upsets me to be compared with some of the great fiction writers, and I completely understand why people tend to do it, because it enables them to map your work within the constellation of authors. It’s useful sometimes for other people to determine where you fit in the hierarchy, like a “where to go” sign. ‘But I think the reason I’m compared with these writers, especially Cruz Smith, is because I’m writing about similar times and places. I tend to disagree with the comparisons, however. If anything, I feel my central character is more like Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. My central character, Leo Demidov, is much more like Jim than he is like Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko. The idea of the idealist who’s gone wrong is one that has always fascinated me in fiction: people put into a situation which pushes them towards a direction where the whole of their life and thought is suddenly challenged and they find themselves unwittingly becoming the villain. ‘That’s why the period I’m writing about in the first two books of my trilogy, Stalinist Russia and its aftermath, is so fascinating. My central character in Child 44, Demidov, is ultimately forced to question the basis of who he is. ‘In my second book, I explore what happens in Russia after the death of Stalin when liberalisation begins to happen, prisoners return from the Gulags, and Demidov is forced to confront those who he caused to be sent there.’ But why write about such an horrific subject as the mass murder of children? ‘Some years ago, I was researching information for a screenplay I was writing about serial killers. I read about this monster, Andrei Chikatilo, and the fact that he’d killed so many people in such ghastly ways. I was especially touched by the fact that he’d singled out children as his victims. But I couldn’t get a sense of what he’d done and why he’d done it from the evidence of the court case. I knew the facts, but not the underlying motivations. He came across as a simple, uninteresting nonentity. It reminded me of what Hannah Arendt said when she was writing about Adolf Eichmann, how she described the world he was part of as the banality of evil. ‘With Chikatilo, it seemed to me that there was no ghastly plotting of his and characters who fascinate me.’ So why did Smith change from being a successful writer for the screen to being a novelist? ‘I still write for the screen,’ he says. ‘I sold an idea to Universal Studios last year. I enjoy writing in both media and I certainly don’t see books as being better than films. They both have very different strengths and pose very different problems to the writer. ‘For instance, I love the intensity and the contrasts which a writer can build into a novel … how a long work of fiction can explore profound depths of feeling and passion. The novel form is where I can think about an entire world of themes and structures and characters, and I’ve got the space and time to explore them and where they take me. ‘And I thrill when I’m writing a ‘This was a society in denial, without any sophisticated investigative techniques … ’ crimes, no clever ingenuity, [he was] just a stumbling, bumbling murderer. So when I turned the structure of his world around, it struck me that the society in which he operated became much more dangerous than him as a murderer. This was a society in denial, without any sophisticated investigative techniques, without serious modern policing ability. People … were saying that it couldn’t be the work of an individual, because only the corrupt West was capable of producing such a murderer. That was the reason I began writing Child 44, and the reason I moved the story from the 1980s into the Stalin period of the 1940s and 50s,’ Smith says. Tom Rob Smith is currently researching and writing the final book in the Demidov trilogy. It deals with Demidov as a much older man, and coincides with the end of Russia’s closed society, a time when it was beginning to open up to the West. ‘Researching this period is utterly fascinating,’ he says, adding that when ‘I burrow down in a book, written by somebody who might have been an eyewitness at the time, or who has done enormous research, that I can get more than a flavour of the times and places APRIL 2009 i goodreading 23 movie and can visualise the way in which an idea can be represented by images. I love working with film people, with directors and producers and actors; it’s an extraordinary medium and it forms an exciting mix in my life,’ he says. Modest as he might be about his achievements to date, no matter what the medium Tom Rob Smith works in, he is assured of a growing and appreciative audience. The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith is published by Simon & Schuster, rrp $32.95.