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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Secret Speech

The Secret Speech is the second book in Tom Rob Smith’s proposed Russian thriller trilogy featuring Leo Demidov. I suspect there will be many readers like me, however, that will be getting their introduction to Leo Demidov from The Secret Speech rather than from the trilogy’s first book, Child 44. The good news is twofold: The Secret Speech functions well as a standalone novel and you still have the supposedly even better Child 44 in your reading future.

Set in the Cold War Russia of 1956, with flashbacks to 1949 when Leo Demidov, a young member of Russia’s secret police (predecessor to the infamous KGB), is busy denouncing and arresting those who dare to waver from the official party line, The Secret Speech is a study in individual responsibility, guilt and redemption. And that is what makes this one stand head and shoulders above the more common political thriller being written these days.

Leo Demidov is a man filled with remorse; he arrested so many innocent people that he has destroyed hundreds of families and thousands of innocent lives. Many of the people he arrested were quickly executed; others spent years in a frozen gulag where they died painful and brutal deaths, never seeing their loved ones again. Now, Demidov is doing everything he can to atone for his own crimes against humanity. He refuses to work for the new KGB and, instead, has created a controversial unit to investigate Moscow’s many homicides. In a symbolic gesture, he and his wife have become the official guardians of two sisters whose parents lost their lives because of Demidov’s work with the secret police. Nothing is more important to Demidov today than his makeshift family.

But someone is successfully taking revenge on people like Demidov. One by one, his old secret police colleagues are being assassinated or shamed into taking their own lives. When Demidov becomes the target of the same assassins he his trying to catch in his role as a homicide investigator, he is concerned more with the safety of his wife and “daughters” than with his own. As he sadly learns, when his 14-year-old daughter is kidnapped, his concerns were well placed, if not well defended.

Demidov’s efforts to recover his daughter will see him end up a prisoner in one of the gulag camps in which so many of his own victims suffered and died, and then scrambling for his life during the first days of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. He will match wits with a woman whose sole purpose in life is to revenge the deaths of those whose lives were destroyed, a hardhearted woman who will show him no mercy.

This is a wonderfully atmospheric novel, placing the reader deeply inside the brutality of a prison camp in dead-of winter Siberia one moment and in the chaos of the 1956 revolution in Hungary the next. The third book of the trilogy is to be published in 2011; in the meantime, I am going to find a copy of Child 44 so that I can learn how Leo Demidov became the man he is.

Rated at: 5.0


(Review Copy provided by Publisher)
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