email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""Who Could That Be at This Hour?"3 Willows4th of July99 DaysA Beautiful MindA Change in AltitudeA Corner Of The UniverseA Falling KnifeA Frog ThingA Great and Terrible BeautyA People's History of ChristianityA Question of BloodA Slight Trick of the MindA Step Toward FallingA Thousand Miles from NowhereA Tragic Kind of WonderfulA Voyage Long and StrangeA Wedding in December Abraham LincolnAcross the River and Into the TreesADHD NationAfter DarkAgainst EmpathyAgainst Medical AdviceAll the Bright PlacesAll the Way HomeAll Unquiet ThingsAlphavilleAlways Forever MaybeAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAmerica AmericaAmong the DepartedAn EducationAn Object of BeautyAnatomy of a MisfitAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaBad BoyBad RatsBarbara the Slut and Other PeopleBeach RoadBeat the ReaperBeauty QueensBed of RosesBefore I DieBefore I FallBefore the FrostBig BrotherBiteBlack Elk SpeaksBlameBleed for MeBlonde FaithBlood, Salt, WaterBody SurfingBog ChildBoneMan's DaughtersBoomsdayBorder CrossingBorn Standing UpBoys Are DogsBoys Will Put You on a Pedestal (So They Can Look Up Your Skirt)Brava, ValentineBreak Through PainBreathingBridge of SighsBrief Interviews with Hideous MenBrutalBy BloodC StreetCalm Beneath the WavesCanadaCellCemetery DanceChange Your Brain, Change Your LifeCheeverCinnamon KissCleopatraClose Your EyesCompulsionCross CountryCyborgasmDakotaDancing at the Shame PromDarkest FearDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDead EvenDead Little Mean GirlDear Zoe,Death Without TenureDeceptionDefending JacobDefine NormalDeliriumDevil in the DetailsDiscovering Pig MagicDisturbing GroundDivergentDivine JusticeDivisaderoDoing ItDon't Wake UpDown the Rabbit HoleDr. Andrew Weil's Mindbody ToolkitDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDriftlessEven Dogs in the WildEvery Exquisite ThingEvery Little Thing in the WorldEye ContactFaith, Hope, and Ivy JuneFaking NormalFalling ManFamily and Other CatastrophesFamily FirstFans of the Impossible LifeFear of the DarkFellsideField of BloodFile Under: 13 Suspicious IncidentsFiregirlFlat Lake in WinterForest of the PygmiesFortunate SonFraudFreak the MightyFree RefillsFull Steam Ahead!Furiously HappyGenerosityGenomeGetting a Good Night's SleepGetting the Love You Want Audio CompanionGiftedGirl in TranslationGod Is DeadGod Is Not OneGods and BeastsGoing BovineGood and GoneGranny Torrelli Makes SoupGraysonHappy FamilyHappy Mutant Baby PillsHarmlessHe's Just Not That Into YouHealthy AgingHeartbeatHeftHigh HeatHolidays on IceHot MilkHotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel WorldHotels of North AmericaHow a Gunman Says GoodbyeHow Full Is Your Bucket?How Successful People ThinkHow to Build a HouseHow to See Yourself As You Really AreHow to Set a Fire and WhyHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurt Go HappyHypnography for MenHypnography for WomenI Am I Am I AmI Am Not Joey PigzaI Can See YouI Drink for a ReasonI Feel Bad About My NeckI'd Know You AnywhereI'm Traveling AloneIdiot AmericaIf a Tree Falls at Lunch PeriodIf I StayIf You StayImagine Me GoneIn ZanesvilleInfinite JestInheritanceInnocentInside the O'BriensInvincibleInvisibleIt Takes OneJennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, ElizabethJust LifeKiss of Broken GlassKissing Ted Callahan (And Other Guys)Knife CreekLeaping BeautyLie to MeLies My Girlfriend Told MeLife After LifeLife InterruptedLife of PiLife StrategiesLisey's StoryLitLittle Black LiesLittle ScarletLive For Your Listening PleasureLiving Your DreamLong Shadow of Small GhostsLooking for BobowiczLosers BracketLost in the ForestLove Is a Mix TapeLove Times ThreeLove, AubreyLowboyMadappleMade for LoveMade For YouMagical ThinkingMagnificenceMaliceMan in the WoodsMeditation in a New York MinuteMeetings with a Remarkable ManMiddlesexMind MappingMindfulness for BeginnersMirrorMaskMischlingMissing PresumedMolly Moon's Incredible Book of HypnotismMommies Who DrinkMunich AirportMy AbandonmentMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Name Is RedMy One Hundred AdventuresMy Sister's KeeperName All the AnimalsNelson Mandela's Favorite African FolktalesNemesisNever Let Me GoNew York 2140Night FilmNina: AdolescenceNinety DaysNone of the AboveNot a Crime to Be PoorNothingNurtureShockObjects of My AffectionOdd Child OutOlive's OceanOn Chesil BeachOne Flew Over The Cuckoo's NestOutliersPaint It BlackPanicParadise LodgeParanoiaPeace Is Every BreathPeople Who Eat DarknessPharmakonPictures of Hollis WoodsPictures of YouPilgrim at Tinker CreekPlaying with FirePlease Stop Laughing at UsPositivityPresumed InnocentPretty Girl-13Prisoner of Night and FogPuddlejumpersPunkzillaRacing the DevilReady for AnythingRebuttalReleaseRequiemRescueRevolutionary RoadRoomRun for Your LifeSay You're SorryScatSchool of FearSeason to TasteSecrets of a Passionate MarriageSee How SmallSeeds of HopeSex and SpiritSide Effects May VarySilencedSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens AgendaSinlessSix Impossible ThingsSkelligSleeping BeautySnowSo Brave, Young and HandsomeSolitaireSomeday This Pain Will Be Useful to YouSourlandSquirrel Seeks ChipmunkStill MissingStory of a GirlStress ReliefSupreme CourtshipSurviving OpheliaSwimming to ElbaSworn to SilenceSycamoreSymptoms of Being HumanTeaseTeaseTell the Truth, Shame the DevilTen Minutes to RelaxTestimonyThat Old Cape MagicThe DrifterThe Abortionist's DaughterThe AccidentalThe Accidental BillionairesThe AdultsThe Almost MoonThe Anatomy of HopeThe ArrangementThe Art of ChoosingThe Art of Exceptional LivingThe Artist of DisappearanceThe Average American MarriageThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe Beat Goes OnThe Best AwfulThe Big LoveThe Boat RockerThe Book of JoeThe Book of LiesThe Book of the DeadThe Boy Who DaredThe Boyfriend ListThe Brass VerdictThe Breakout PrincipleThe Burden of ProofThe Case for GodThe Case of the Case of Mistaken IdentityThe Cemetery BoysThe ChemistThe Chosen OneThe ClosersThe Consciousness PlagueThe Conspiracy ClubThe Cuckoo's CallingThe Dangerous Art of Blending InThe Day I Ate Whatever I WantedThe Dead Fathers ClubThe Death of Bunny MunroThe Devotion of Suspect XThe Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-BanksThe Diviner's TaleThe DollmakerThe Dressmaker of Khair KhanaThe Dynamite RoomThe Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round ThingsThe EndThe End of Our StoryThe Erotic EdgeThe Essential KamasutraThe Family GeneThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe Forgotten GirlsThe Fortunate OnesThe Geography of You and MeThe Gift of an Ordinary DayThe Gingerbread GirlThe Girl in 6EThe Girl in the GardenThe Girl on Mill StreetThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's NestThe Girl Who Played with FireThe Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Grief of OthersThe Grim GrottoThe Guise of AnotherThe Guy Not TakenThe Heart of YogaThe Hearts of MenThe Heretic's DaughterThe Ice QueenThe Ice TwinsThe Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe InseparablesThe InterestingsThe Keeper of Lost CausesThe Keeper of Lost ThingsThe Kings of LondonThe Language God TalksThe Language of SecretsThe Language Of YogaThe Last ChildThe Last MileThe Last Time We Say GoodbyeThe Male BrainThe Man from BeijingThe Man in My BasementThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Map of True PlacesThe Marriage PlotThe Memory Book The Mermaids SingingThe Ministry of Special CasesThe MuralistThe Museum of InnocenceThe Mystery of the Third LucretiaThe Myth of LazinessThe NarrowsThe Necessary Death of Lewis WinterThe New YorkersThe NewleywedsThe NixThe NursesThe Only Girl in the WorldThe Opposite of InvisibleThe Other Side of the StoryThe Outcasts of 19 Schuyler PlaceThe Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeThe PastThe Penultimate PerilThe Perfect GirlThe PostcardThe Pregnant WidowThe Promise of a LieThe PyramidThe Qi Healing KitThe ReaderThe Republican BrainThe Rule of FourThe Rules of SurvivalThe Savage CityThe ScarecrowThe Second GirlThe Secret Life of BeesThe Secret of Lost ThingsThe Secret ScriptureThe Secret SpeechThe Secret Wisdom of the EarthThe ShallowsThe SharkThe Shock of the FallThe Silent BoyThe SisterThe Sound of Broken GlassThe SpindlersThe Story HourThe Story of Beautiful GirlThe Sudden Arrival of ViolenceThe Survivors ClubThe Sweet Relief of Missing ChildrenThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the PieThe Tail of Emily WindsnapThe Tenth JusticeThe Thing About JellyfishThe Third AngelThe TouristThe Treasure Map of BoysThe Trouble with Goats and SheepThe Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraThe Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia MossThe UnquietThe Unseen WorldThe VegetarianThe View from SaturdayThe WaveThe Weed That Strings the Hangman's BagThe Weight of the NationThe Whiz Mob and the Grenadine KidThe Whole TruthThe WilloughbysThe Witch's BoyThe Wolves of AndoverThe Words We Live ByThe Wrong Side of GoodbyeThe Year of the FloodThe Year That FollowsThe Yin Yoga KitThings You Didnt SeeThirteen Reasons WhyThis Beautiful LifeThis Body of DeathThis Book Is Not Good For YouThis Full HouseThis Is HowThose GirlsThose Who Wish Me DeadTony & SusanToo Much HappinessTooth and NailTouchTransformation TriburbiaTrue BelieverTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTwinmakerTwistedTwo Can PlayTwo Little Girls in BlueUnaccustomed EarthUnder Rose-Tainted SkiesUnder the HarrowUnder the InfluenceUnder WildwoodUniversal HarvesterUnlessUnthinkingUp in the AirVery ValentineVisits from The Drowned GirlVoid MoonWaiting for SunriseWalkingWarWatching the DarkWays to Die in GlasgowWe Are OkayWhat the Dog SawWhen My Heart Joins the ThousandWhen We Were AnimalsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhen You Reach MeWhere She WentWherever You Go, There You AreWhite HotWild AwakeWild ChildWildwoodWill They Ever Trust Us Again?Wolf in White VanWomen's Murder Club Box SetYoga SanctuaryYou Know Me WellYou Look Different in Real LifeYou Should Have KnownYou Will Know Me
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