TOM ROB SMITH reads as part of Crime & Mystery night, Wednesday (October 29), 8 pm, at Fleck Dance Theatre; and takes part in a panel on Thickening Plots, November 1, noon, at Lakeside Terrace.
When Tom Rob Smith's thriller, Child 44, appeared earlier this year on the Man Booker Award long list, it raised some eyebrows in London's literary circles.
"I hope it helped push past some of the stigma around genre fiction," says Smith, on the phone from London. "You wouldn't presume the quality of a film based on its genre, whereas you make lots of assumptions about a book."
Child 44, while a page-turner in the mould of Silence Of The Lambs (rights have been sold to director Ridley Scott), deserves its literary cred. The book's set in bleak Stalinist Russia and, while Smith's research is impeccable, what's impressive are the rich portraits of humans trying to survive under one of the most terrifying regimes of the last century.
A serial killer is murdering Russia's children, but the government is trying to hush up the crimes. In a perfect society there can be no such thing as a criminal - only enemies of the state like those people infected with Western ideas, the mentally ill or homosexuals. So it's up to Leo Demidov, a former star MGB agent, to help solve the crimes, even as his own life is coming under investigation.
Helping propel the story forward is the fact that Leo is being pursued with Javert-like fury by an embittered fellow officer, Vasili.
"I intended to show that Vasili loves Leo but doesn't understand what he's feeling and has changed it into a kind of hatred," says Smith.
In one of the book's most horrific episodes, a gay man is forced to rat out the town's other homosexuals, who get rounded up and interrogated for murder.
Smith is gay and out, but he's not sure that influenced his decision to include these scenes in the book.
"That's a tricky topic," he says. "Brokeback Mountain is perhaps the most important gay movie ever, but it was directed, produced and written by straight people.
"I hope that anyone who read the same source material I did would have written as sensitively about these issues. I think you can see prejudice whether you've suffered it or not."
Still, art doesn't exist in a political vacuum. Is Smith saying something about contemporary repression and secrecy in this book?
"I do think police investigations can tell you a lot about a society," he says. "Crime can be a trigger for people to pursue their own agendas. That still holds true today."