This review does not contain spoilers.
Book Name: The Secret Speech
Author: Tom Rob Smith
Publisher(s): Grand Central Publishing
Format(s): Hardcover/Trade & Mass Market Paperback/Audiobook/eBook
Genre(s): Historical fiction/Thriller
Release Date: May 19th 2009
Several years ago I remember watching a movie on the cable network Showtime called Citizen X. It was about Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who admitted killing 56 women and children in the Soviet Union from the late 1970s until 1990 when he was captured. What fascinated me about the case was not the killings but the politics of the Soviet system that prevented a thorough investigation of the crimes. I’ve read a couple of books on the case and the book the film was based on, The Killer Department by Robert Cullen, sits on my “to read” shelf. Tom Rob Smith’s first novel, Child 44, is a fictional account based on Chikatilo’s crimes using MGB Agent Leo Demidov as the protagonist. That was my introduction to Smith’s writings. I won’t spoil Child 44 by mentioning who Smith uses as the killer; readers should pick up the book and find out on their own.
Smith once again uses an actual Soviet event as the back story for The Secret Speech, Nikita Khrushchev’s “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in February of 1956 (AKA, the Secret Speech). In the speech Khrushchev denounces Josef Stalin and the atrocities committed against the Soviet peoples in Stalin’s name, and strives to move the Soviet Union back toward Leninism. The Secret Speech opens as the period historically referred to as the “Khrushchev Thaw” begins.
Demidov, now working for the Homicide Division within the KGB, returns as the lead character in The Secret Speech and the story contains more plot twist than you can count. Demidov’s family, wife Raisa and adopted daughters Zoya and Elena, play a huge role in determining the plot’s direction as his past in the MGB (Ministry of State Security) comes back to haunt him. Under Stalin the MGB did some terrible things to the citizens of the Soviet Union in the name of State security, and while Demidov’s actions are tame by comparison they still would keep him off any “good guy” list.
As Zoya turns her back on her adoptive father, something that was already happening well before antagonist Fraera even enters the picture, the story twists and turns so telling who is doing bad things for good reasons and good things for the wrong reasons is hard to figure out until we learn the entire truth. All the main characters have a story to tell, and somehow Smith manages to tell each story with enough depth and detail that eventually the reader can understand the motives of everyone involved.
The 1956 uprising in Hungary is the stage for the final scenes of the book, and as well as Smith intricately winds the twisting plot through the major characters his descriptions of the violent encounters are just as vivid. In the end it’s Demidov’s actions that show his true goodness despite the not-so-good things that he did in the past under the rule of Stalin. It’s a story about redemption, and Tom Rob Smith writes it well.
Smith has a third book featuring Leo Demidov called Agent 6, which is on my “to read” shelf, along with a stand-alone novel earlier this year entitled The Farm.