Article published on June 30, 2011.
When Tom Rob Smith’s debut, Child 44, was long listed for the Man Booker in 2008, it gave crime fiction aficionados something to cheer about. Finally the literary establishment had taken note of something the rest of us had known for a long time – crime fiction can be quality fiction. Sadly for Smith the follow up book, The Secret Speech, fell victim to several critics upholding the unpleasant tradition of “build ‘em up, knock ‘em down.” While much commentary was wholeheartedly favourable, cynics spoke of “second book syndrome,” and decried Smith for eschewing human drama in favour of action. Not having had the pleasure of reading Child 44, nor ever having been one for unthinking literary elitism, this reviewer approached The Secret Speech with an open mind.
The tale continues the life of Leo Demidov, the Russian secret policeman introduced in Child 44. Now in charge of the controversial Homicide Department, Demidov struggles with the most dysfunctional of families; his wife Raisa married him out of fear, and the eldest of his adopted daughters despises him for his involvement in the killing of her biological parents. These are the least of his problems however, when new premier Nikita Khrushchev releases the eponymous secret speech, a denunciation of Josef Stalin and the worst excesses of his reign. While well-intended, the speech serves to bewilder and enrage the Russian people, bred as they have been on a diet of unequivocal and incessant praise for their former leader. Of greater concern to Demidov and his family is the malevolence the speech engenders in the population. As tools of Stalin’s oppression, Demidov and all former government agents are targeted by forces bent on revenge.
The Secret Speech is a visceral study of totalitarianism. Smith depicts a Soviet Union in which adolescent ardour has no safe outlet and is thus potentially lethal. Families are not insulated from the actions of individual members, and human relationships are cruelly distorted. All that is healthy about the human spirit is trampled under the Communist boot. It would be wrong to suggest the book belongs at the top table at which 1984 and The Trial sit, but as a commercial thriller with a political heart, The Secret Speech is devastatingly effective.
Similarly, the law of unintended consequences is examined in depth. Devoted to the principles of Marxist-Leninism, Khrushchev is an idealist. When the idealism of his speech meets the realpolitik of those tasked with enforcing it, the results are nothing short of disastrous. Ironically, even under an ostensibly totalitarian system, the leader‘s power to affect change is apparently limited.
Redemption is another key theme in the book. Demidov is at a distant end of the imperfect hero scale. While in Child 44 he at least had his devotion to the Soviet cause, now Demidov is stripped of his belief in the regime. By accumulating the trappings of normality, he seeks atonement through love, but remains a troublesome protagonist. Accordingly, Smith subjects his leading man to brutal punishment both physically and mentally in something of a purification by pain. Demidov will never be a white knight, but Smith does elicit enough sympathy from the reader to make him a beguiling lead.
Where Smith evokes the political realities of Russia splendidly, this is mirrored in his depictions of the locations. In the Siberian Gulag, the reader can all but feel the compacted snow under their own feet. The desolate landscapes of the east and the frost-bitten urban wasteland of Moscow are expertly drawn. While the Hungarian sequence may not reach the same lofty standard, overall Smith’s use of place is excellent. Those who criticised Smith for keeping an eye on the film rights may have inadvertently hit on something here; scenes are drawn so well one can easily imagine the look of the movie producer’s storyboards.
Much was made of the pace of the book on its release; naysayers complained that the narrative was rushed. Two separate threads unfold simultaneously, with the story flitting between the two often several times during a single day. Some found this jarring, by contrast this reviewer found the synchronicity of two storylines highly effective. The pace is swift, but Smith avoids cramming an excess of events into any given time period, thereby keeping the speed steady and plausible.
Overall, The Secret Speech feels like a book judged harshly by an over-expectant public. It takes the bones of a ripping thriller and fleshes them out with a strong evocation of the brutality of Soviet Russia. This reviewer for one looks forward to July and the closing chapter in the trilogy, Agent 6.