Monday, August 17, 2009

The Secret Speech - Tom Rob Smith

The Secret Speech
Tom Rob Smith
Grand Central Publishing


It’s 1956 in Russia. Stalin is dead and Khrushchev has risen to power. Leo Demidov has been running his homicide department for three years. His department is unique and must be kept secret from the public; admitting that there is still significant crime is against the interest of the State. Leo knows this very well, having spent the early years of his career as part of the militia. But he feels like he’s doing good work now, meaningful work. Maybe even work that can balance out the State-sanctioned activities of the past.

Three years ago, while investigating the case of a serial killer (CHILD 44) Leo and his wife, Raisa, adopted Zoya and Elena, the two daughters of a farm couple caught in the deadly events. Zoya is now 14 and, while she loves Raisa, she refuses to allow Leo past her stony façade. She’s proud to be an outcast, even at school. She knows that this wounds Leo, since it ruins his dream of a personal utopia: a happy family. Events come to a head when the State distributes a speech by Khrushchev to be read in every school class and factory in the country. Shockingly, the speech asserts that Stalin was power-mad and that, under him, the police committed crimes. Zoya hears this with glee, taking it as proof that Leo is a criminal to be hated.

Many other men who worked for the State under Stalin are under insidious attack. Someone is sending them arrest photos, reminding them of the bad old days. One man, who was a prison guard, kills himself when he realizes that his reputation and life will be destroyed in the eyes of every schoolchild and worker in the country. Leo’s first partner calls him in the middle of the night, drunk, wanting to talk. Leo puts him off until the next morning when he’s sober, but by then it’s too late. The man took the lives of his beloved wife and daughters, then killed himself, rather than face the shame and guilt. It’s obvious that someone is exacting revenge for the past. As a part of that past, Leo must find out who, and why.

This novel proves beyond a doubt that CHILD 44 was no fluke. This author is hugely talented and manages to create an atmosphere of dread and hope. He excels at creating characters that are complex, but utterly realistic. This is a period of history that I haven’t read much about, so the general atmosphere is fascinating to me. The story moves from place to place and addresses both very personal issues and those that are much more global in scale. Leo is a man trying to live a good life, give his family a good life, and atone for things he did in the past, even though each and every one of those things were sanctioned – no, demanded – by the State he serves.

Rating: 9
May 2009
ISBN# 978-0-446-40240-8 (hardcover)


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