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Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 (2008) introduced Soviet state security agent Leo Stepanovich Demidov, a man whose unquestioning commitment to the Stalinist system places him in an impossible position when other loyalties begin to make claims upon him and force a crisis of conscience. The time-honoured crime-thriller template of the hunter becoming the quarry was given fresh dynamism and urgency by the originality and authority of Smith's treatment. Demidov himself emerged from that novel a well-imagined, convincing and sympathetic character. The lingering legacy for the reader was the question-mark that hung over him when the story came to an end. The former Stalinist enforcer clearly wants to be an honest cop: will he succeed?
As the second Demidov novel The Secret Speech gets under way it seems that the answer is 'yes'. Through the influence of a powerful patron he has become a detective in a new homicide unit, where he seems to have the freedom to pursue criminals without the distortions and manipulations of politics getting in the way. He lives quietly with his wife and two adopted children, has a solid relationship with his dependable and trustworthy sidekick, and has, it seems, left the shadows of the past behind. It is 1956, and de-Stalinization is beginning. In a sense, Demidov is ahead of the game: he has already de-Stalinized himself. That does not mean, however, that the dark deeds of his own past or the darkness of the system he served and -- whether he likes it or not -- still serves will leave him untouched. Gradually, through Smith's characteristic technique of threading together seemingly disconnected events and leading the reader back and forth through time, we see almost every aspect of Demidov's new life become compromised, undermined, and ultimately torn apart -- and we also follow his desperate struggle to save what he has.
For his background Tom Rob Smith picks up on one of the formative moments of Soviet history -- Nikita Khrushchev's 'secret speech' of 1956, in which he denounced Stalinism, undermining what had been the way of life (and death) for millions of servants of the Soviet state for a quarter of a century. In the West the speech was seen as a harbinger of more openness, a rejection of the worst aspects of the system's murderous tyranny, but for many officials who had loyally served this system it marked a destruction of their world and an exposure to the contempt, and potentially the vengeance, of their fellow-citizens. Smith evokes the effects of the slow leaking of the speech through Soviet society through a simple, direct advice: copies of it mysteriously arrive on the doorsteps of former secret policeman, prison guards and other servants of the Stalinist system, provoking terror, anger, soul-searching, even suicide. Then there are the murders: seemingly inspired by the speech, someone is seeking justice through revenge against the servants of the Stalinist state.
For Demidov the advent of the speech and the uses that are made of it by those seeking vengeance undermine his attempts to live a new, morally cleaner life. But the fact is that there are no morally clean lives in his society, no-one is innocent, everyone is implicated.
Smith's style is strikingly cinematic: he composes sequences of events rather than writing a narrative, creating dazzling set-pieces, exploiting dramatic juxtapositions and teasing the reader with seemingly unrelated sequences involving apparently unconnected people. The results can be confusing, and the wide geographical and chronological range, across a decade of history and the width of the Soviet Union (plus Hungary), of The Secret Speech creates a somewhat breathless and hectic impression. Credulity is sometimes stretched: the story involves a few too many hairsbreadth escapes and dramatic twists of fortune, and there are occasional significant errors of fact. Smith knows his kremlinology and understands precisely how the complex web of Soviet internal security agencies fitted together, yet is capable of making an Ilyushin-12 fly non-stop from Magadan to Moscow when it would in reality have plunged into the ground, its tanks empty, somewhere east of Lake Baikal.
In Demidov Smith has created an obstinate and apparently indestructible character: it's hard to like him, but impossible not to be impressed by him and interested in his fate. In Child 44 his personal journey was involving and credible for the reader, but in this book it is less satisfactory and at times he shares the quality of many of the other characters -- he seems to exist in order to fill a gap in the plot, rather than driving it through his motivation and actions. Of Demidov's children, the plight of the younger girl is much more emotionally involving than that of her older sister, Zoya, whose life becomes one breathless sequence of implausible adventures and strained set-pieces but whose character never comes to life. This failing is even more notable in the character of Fraera, who entirely lacks any plausibility or convincing rationale for her actions. In her Smith tried to create a monster, but she is too patently artificial a creation to be successful.
Overall The Secret Speech lacks the driving power of plotting and narrative that made Chile 44 an exceptional novel. Its characters are weaker and it never quiet hangs together. The moral dilemmas at its heart are engaging, however, and the book possesses a page-turning energy that will carry the reader to the end.
This audiobook version of the novel is up to Hachette's normal high standards. Producing audiobooks from texts written in English but involving non-English-speaking cultures presents a problem: to use a foreign accent, or not? The wrong decision risks annoying or even alienating countless listeners. Hachette and their reader, American actor (and audiobook veteran) Dennis Boutsikaris, have settled upon a policy of using accents, and it works. Boutsikaris's reading is so subtle, skilful and appropriate in tone that by the end it's impossible to imagine the book being read by anyone else or in any other way.
© 2009 Ralph Harrington
Ralph Harrington, Ph.D. is a historian who has researched, lectured and published on medical history and the history of trauma, among other topics. His web site is at http://www.greycat.org