A Review of Tom Rob Smith’s "The Secret Speech"

The Secret SpeechThe Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not sure whether it’s the brisk pace or the vivid attention to detail that makes me feel like I’m right on the ground in Khrushchev’s era — maybe it’s both.

Leo Demidov is still battling the demons from his past that showed up in Smith’s first novel, “Child 44.” He and his wife, Raisa, have learned to turn a marriage of convenience into one of honesty and love. They have adopted Zoya and Elena, the daughters of a couple that was murdered in the course of an investigation that Leo was carrying out.

Now, one of Leo’s first arrests — of a priest — comes back to haunt him. Having posed as a novice to gain the priest’s trust, only to arrest him and attempt to take his wife away, Leo faces the wrath of the wife, who changes her name and becomes an agent of the state — and of dissidence, fueling violence for violence’s sake, using the State to foil the State. She kidnaps the older of Leo’s new daughters and places him and his wife in dilemma after heart-rending dilemma.

Ultimately, though, we see that the dilemmas they face are similar to our own — the choices we make for those we love, even if those choices end up hurting ourselves. Leo’s journey into a gulag, involving torture and the specter of execution; Zoya’s abandonment of her younger sister to indulge her anger; Raisa’s temptation to leave Leo if it means Zoya can come home; these are just some of the many choices that form a labyrinth through which Leo and Raisa must tread in order to pursue redemption, as slippery as it is.

And if the story isn’t enough, there’s also the tense narrative of the heady days between the end of Stalin’s reign and the certitude of Khrushchev’s, as the Warsaw Pact nations began to test their limits after the end of the era of pogroms. The slippery Fral Ponin, a consummate politician, might just be that era’s Dick Cheney (or vice versa), using the passions of others to manipulate them into doing his dirty work for him.

There are not many trilogies that I race through, but this story, and the one before it, have lured me to snatch the third installment, “Agent 6” for my Kindle as fast as the Whispernet will bring it.

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