Tom Rob Smith’s previous novel, Child 44, detailed the experiences of one Leo Demidov, a Stalinist-era Soviet agent-turned-detective seeking the cause of a massacre of Russian schoolchildren. Demidov is back in The Secret Speech, a gritty and nerve-wracking thriller that’s as grimly detailed and bleakly vicious as its predecessor—and equally difficult to put down.
In the mid-‘50s, Stalin is dead and Khrushchev has seized power in the Kremlin: in a speech unprecedented for its honesty and bravery, he declares Stalin a murderer and many of his policies criminal. The entire Soviet system is turned on its head; in this world of suddenly-shifting values, once-feared secret police become victims of revenge carried out by the dissidents and criminals they once targeted.
Demidov has his share of closeted skeletons, as does his friend Nikolai (who ends up dead) and Moskvin (who ends up dead) and the informant Marina (who ends up—well, you get the idea). As a detective, Demidov is under pressure to discover who is behind this campaign of terror against State-sponsored security forces. The pressure is greater than normal, given that he is likely one of the intended targets.
All this is just the beginning. Smith weaves an increasingly knotty tale, in which apparently unconnected threads become vitally intertwined, and characters introduced early on return in markedly changed form hundreds of pages later. Smith masterfully builds suspense out of a carefully balanced set of elements: the loyal officer who harbors doubts; the faithful wife who goes beyond all expectation to save her husband; the sulky teenager; the street-smart urchin. These characters sound typical, but they breathe with an individuality uncommon in much fiction. Smith must be one of a very select group of thriller writers whose domestic scenes crackle with as much tension as, say, his action set pieces.
The book follows the conventions of genre to the extent that chapters tend to end with a bang—a cliffhanger or shocking revelation or “aw, hell no” moment—but it subverts genre, too. Two-thirds of the way through, when a major plot point is resolved involving the attempted freeing of a Gulag prisoner, a long and grisly sequence containing numerous harrowing scenes, many lesser writers would have considered their job well done. Smith, in contrast, blindsides the reader with a twist—then another, and another, before plunging into the book’s final act. “Rollercoaster” is a clichéd term to describe books, but in this case it is apt: the relevations and reversals keep coming, and the reader is as unlikely to anticipate them as is poor Demidov.
The author can turn a fine phrase when he wants to, as well, and he seems to want to often. Describing the forbidding Siberian landscape where the Gulags are located, the narrator sets the scene: “The cloud level had sunk a thousand meters, obliterating the view. Silver-gilded droplets hung in the air—a mist part ice, part water, part magic—out of which the drab highway appeared meter by meter, a gray, lumpish carpet unraveling in front of them.” Such clever turns of phrase (“part water, part magic”) are infrequent enough to avoid cuteness, but common enough to be a recognizable part of the writer’s style. Elsewhere, the narrator refers to “perhaps the cruelest good news Leo had ever experienced.”
Although evocative, the writing is never fussy or precious. Smith is equally adept at describing emotional loss and brutal violence. “The foremost prisoners were using the injured crew as a human shield: burnt bodies carried like battering rams, skinless, charred faces screaming.” Note to the fainthearted: there are many such passages.
The final act of the book’s tripartite structure shifts the action to Budapest in the year 1956. Events rush forward, both historical and fictional, as Demidov and the other characters find themselves caught up in events not of their own making, or at least, not as much of their making as they might wish to believe.
Through it all, the paranoia of life in the post-Stalin USSR permeates every page. Neighbor fears neighbor, informants are seen in every shadow, denouncing an enemy is as easy as making a phone call before someone else makes one about you. The overriding sensation of life in these pages is terror of the State: one fears saying the wrong thing, or the right thing to the wrong person, or laughing at the wrong moment, or feeling insufficiently grateful for the privilege of living in such a society. An apologist for Stalin (are there any left?) might question the accuracy of such a portrayal.
Increasingly, such portrayals are what we’ve got. As memories fade and citizens die off, novelists like Smith will be relied upon to create the milieu of such times and places. Whether his presentation is a legitimate reflection of life at the time is a question that lies outside the boundaries of this review. The novel is a tense nail-biter, surprising in its emotional impact and inventive in its action and plot. That will more than satisfy most readers.