Smith, Tom Rob - 'The Secret Speech'
THE SECRET SPEECH is the second in a planned trilogy by Tom Rob Smith featuring Leo Demidov, Cold War era Russian security officer and homicide investigator, and is the follow-up to the popular and critically acclaimed CHILD 44.
Set in 1956, three years after the events of CHILD 44, Demidov now heads up a semi-hidden homicide department, housed above a suburban bakery. Kruschev has succeeded Stalin, and makes a dramatic "secret speech" to the Party Congress, damning the cult of personality surrounding Stalin, and the cruel and paranoid excesses of purges carried out by the Stalinist regime. Reform is in the air, a frightening prospect to those who benefited from and/or participated in the repression. After the secret speech is deliberately leaked into Russian society, some former MGB officers commit suicide and others are the targets of revenge killings. As part of his job as homicide investigator, Demidov starts to investigate the deaths and soon discovers that he may be a target for revenge. In his first undercover role as a security officer, he infiltrated a church in the guise of a seminary graduate, and gathered evidence responsible for sending a Russian priest and his wife to the gulags. The wife, Fraera, has been freed from the gulag, and is bent on revenge, and as a leader of a "vory" gang at the margins of society, she now has the means at her disposal to exact vengeance, and has pursued the other MGB officers involved in her arrest.
In his personal life Demidov also has to pay for his past; the older of the two children he adopted at the end of Child 44, Zoya, is unable to accept Leo as a father figure, as he was a member of the team of MGB officers that arrested her and killed her father (Leo was complicit in the arrest but not the killing). Zoya hovers over Leo's bed holding a knife while he is sleeping. Demidov's personal and political life soon collide when Fraera kidnaps Zoya, offering to return her only if Demidov can free her husband from the gulags. Leo's quest to rescue Zoya leads him through the Moscow sewers, and the gulags (where he pretends to be a prisoner, at great risk to himself), to Budapest on the cusp of an ill-fated revolt against the Russians.
THE SECRET SPEECH is not quite as compelling as its predecessor, suffering from an overload of action, and some weak characterisation. The depiction of Fraera, the anti-heroine, is unconvincing and her motivations are confusing, despite her actions driving the plot. Fraera's transition from put upon clergy wife to bandit queen isn't entire plausible. The adoption of the two orphaned children by Demidov and Raisa also appears implausible; in particular the expectation that the children would not resent Demidov.
Demidov does however remain an interesting and complex character. He presents somewhat less sympathetically in this book than in the previous book – it's rather easier for the reader to unequivocally approve a hunt for a serial child killer (the basis of CHILD 44) than to identify with the representative of a repressive regime trying to escape the consequences of his former misdeeds.There is enough plot and location material in THE SECRET SPEECH for several novels. I feel that a less complex plot would have been more satisfactory. The action scenes at the end of the gulag section seem particularly incongruous and the whole gulag section does not really achieve a great deal in progressing the plot. These flaws are a great pity; the core of the novel covers fascinating and complex moral territory. The theme of shifting moral, political and legal ground after a change of regime, and how the officers of the old regime react to the threat posed by reform, makes for a great subject matter, connecting the early section of the book focusing on the secret speech and the Budapest section. Despite my criticisms, THE SECRET SPEECH is a remarkable meld of history, politics and thriller, a page-turner written with intelligence and sensitivity, which should appeal particularly to fans of Philip Kerr or Olen Steinhauer.
Laura Root, England