The Secret Speech

Posted: September 2, 2014 in Book reviews

By Tom Rob Smith.

This is the sequel to Soviet era thriller Child 44, which I’ve reviewed previously. As is always the case whilst I’ll try to avoid spoilers it is hard to talk about this book without potentially spoiling Child 44. You’ve been warned.

It’s three years after the death of Stalin, and Leo Demidov, the hero of Child 44, is running the only homicide division within the Soviet Union—his reward for stopping the child murderer in the first book. In the three years many things have changed. The MGB has gone, replaced by the KGB, and Khrushchev now rules in place of Stalin. The country is perhaps less totalitarian than it was, although it’s still a place ruled by fear, and if things aren’t quite as horrible as in Stalin’s time, Smith still evokes a place you wouldn’t want to live in.

Leo and his wife, Raisa are raising two young sisters, Zoya and Elena, as their own children having rescued them from an orphanage at the end of Child 44. Unfortunately whilst Elena, the younger child, has grown to love her adoptive parents, Zoya still hates Leo for the role he played in the murder of her parents.

When Khrushchev’s “secret” speech is released, denouncing many of the crimes committed under Stalin, it acts as a trigger for the violent murder of many former MGB agents. Though the crimes seem random, Leo quickly discovers that he is the ultimate target of an unexpected enemy from his past. Soon Zoya has been kidnapped and Leo will find himself undertaking a perilous journey that will take him from the harsh gulags at the ends of the earth, to the Hungarian uprising in Budapest.

Firstly it must be said that this is an enjoyable book. Smith’s prose remains exceptionally readable and however contrived his narrative becomes, it always remains a heck of a page turner. Unfortunately, it has to be said, there are an awful lot of contrivances within the book.

Whilst the first majority of Child 44 was a masterpiece that sadly went off the rails somewhat as realism was jettisoned for a series of daring escapes and ridiculous coincidences, The Secret Speech puts realism to one side far earlier in the narrative, with Smith content instead to indulge his inner screenwriter in what reads suspiciously like the first draft script of a high octane thriller. Leo is hurled from one ridiculously dangerous encounter to another, and whilst the pace is breath-taking it quickly becomes a trifle dull; from a chase through to sewers of Moscow to slave revolts on a rusty freighter and a harsh gulag to the Hungarian revolution it’s easy to see that this book might make for a good film.

Unfortunately things that are forgivable in the breakneck pace of a film become glaring within the novel. At times it seems Leo can’t do anything without it backfiring on him, as if Smith feels the need for every scene to be one of life and death. Unfortunately this just makes it harder and harder to suspend disbelief. The book rarely pauses to let the story breathe, and so what you’re left with is a series of set pieces linked tenuously together.

Still well written and I’ll definitely be getting the final part of the trilogy, but not a patch on Child 44 unfortunately.

  1. […] trilogy of novels featuring Soviet era detective Leo Demidov. I’ve already reviewed Child 44 and The Secret Speech, so while I’ll try to keep spoilers for Agent 6 to a minimum spoilers for the first two books may […]

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