Friday, April 21, 2017

Review of The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith (2009, Pocket Books)

Moscow, 1956. Leo Demidov, former MGB officer, now heads up a homicide division. The new Soviet leader, Khrushchev, has denounced the hard-line of Stalin in a secret speech that has been widely circulated and has promised reform.  Millions have been complicit in carrying out Stalin’s purges and millions were executed and sent to gulags.  Leo has personally arrested hundreds of people, many of them guilty of little more than trying to survive a brutal regime.  Khrushchev’s speech threatens to destabilise the Soviet system and someone seems intent on exacting revenge against those in power.  Leo, his wife Raisa, and their two adopted daughters are in the firing line. Leo wishes to atone for his part in wrecking lives, but not at the expense of his family. To save them he must undertake a hazardous mission, first to the gulags of Siberia, then to revolutionary Hungary.

The Secret Speech is the second book in the Leo Demidov trilogy.  After his exploits in Child 44, Demidov is now running a homicide division.  He can’t break free of his MGB days, however.  One of those he arrested and sent to the gulags is using the ‘Khrushchev thaw’, in which the new leader seeks reform and to the hard-line actions of the State, and their early release to target those responsible for their incarceration.  Leo and his new family is top of the list for reprisals.  Smith uses this revenge premise to construct a wider political thriller in which Leo, in order to save his family, becomes an unwilling participant in a larger plot.  There’s certainly a lot going on in the tale, including a potted history of Khrushchev’s failed reforms, the savagery of the gulags, the parallel criminal underworld in the Soviet Union, and the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian rising, with Leo trying to navigate each to stay alive and rescue his kidnapped daughter.  While there’s plenty of action and tension, the story becomes ever-more unbelievable as the tale progresses. Both the political thread and Leo’s quest become ragged, staged and driven by plot devices.  Leo not only survives the first hundred pages or so, but somehow has ninety-nine lives despite the numerous life-threatening scrapes he finds himself in.  The result is a Hollywood blockbuster that hides a tenuous plot with violence, melodrama, political intrigue, and a series of mini-cliffhangers. 


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