three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
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0

A-The Secret SpeechEnglish author Tom Rob Smith burst onto the literary scene in 2008 with his debut novel, Child 44 ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2008), which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award.

The Story: It is 1956, and a more broad-minded Russia has emerged from the tumultuous days following Stalin's death, prompting his former opponents-the secret police, judges, and others who carried out his orders-to bay for the blood of his collaborators. Guilt-ridden Ministry of State Security agent Leo Demidov, appointed to a special homicide unit after tracking down a serial killer in Child 44, seeks solace in his family, including his long-suffering wife Raisa and adopted daughters Zoya and Elena, but someone has other plans for him. When fellow agents begin turning up dead, the Kremlin turns a blind eye, and Leo finds himself at the center of a dark and twisted plot for revenge.
Grand Central Publishing. 416 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 9780446402408

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"In this, the sequel, he has accomplished what few writers have been able to pull off-an expertly crafted story as powerful and addictive as its predecessor. ... The author's keen understanding of Soviet society and his knowledge of the criminal gangs that operated in a kind of parallel world give the story the gripping realism that is the hallmark of his writing." Michael J. Bonafield

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"The Secret Speech does not quite match Child 44's breathtaking audacity or relentless pacing, but Smith continues to provide fascinating history lessons, a strikingly original setting and quality storytelling. ... Based on real events, The Secret Speech is jam-packed with action-the near-sinking of a prison ship, a violent takeover at a Kolyma gulag, and a rebellion in Hungary-and Smith explores pertinent questions of revenge, morality and responsibility." Connie Ogle

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[The] diabolical plan for a day of reckoning drives the narrative engine but is the weakest part of an otherwise remarkable novel. ... If this book never quite achieves the propulsive urgency of Smith's first novel, he more than makes up for it with a broadening of moral scope and thematic richness." Dennis Lehane

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Smith's story evolves into an explosive thriller-fueled by blind love, fear of rejection and two death-defying journeys that could lead to Demidov's redemption-or not. ... In The Secret Speech, Smith writes with finesse and authority about the post-Stalinist era, the undeterred passion of people crushed by the Soviet juggernaut and the survival of family loyalties at any cost." Carol Memmott

Independent (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Leo and Raisa have become measurably flattened as characters, reduced to a series of impulses: but-I-love-him; not-without-my-child; I-will-have-my-revenge. ... Who cares, though? Tom Rob Smith has created another insanely exciting story, while making you feel you're learning a bit of history along the way." Suzi Feay

San Antonio Exp-News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Smith has spun another rocket-fire page-flipper, full of treachery and intrigue and heroic characters. Belief must occasionally be suspended as Leo, for example, fights off entire Russian armies. But the good news is, as in Child 44, Smith's meticulous research shines through on nearly every page, as he re-creates Soviet-era Moscow and Budapest of the tragic 1956 Revolution." Steve Bennett

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"The author brings back Leo Demidov, the hero from last year's Child 44, but with far less satisfying results in this labored would-be thriller. ... Smith remains a fiendishly intricate plotter, but this is a routine thriller crammed so full of reversals that the life is squeezed out of the characters." Michael Harris

Critical Summary

Compared to the critical acclaim showered on its predecessor, Child 44, The Secret Speech drew mixed reviews from critics. While the Minneapolis Star Tribune alone proclaimed Smith's sophomore effort equal to his debut, other critics still considered it entertaining and thought-provoking in its questioning of the nature of exoneration and redemption. The power of Smith's writing lies in his ability to ground sensational plot developments in rich historical and cultural detail, gleaned from extensive research. His gift for immersing readers deep within Cold War-era Moscow and Siberia propels the plot as much as his chase scenes and action sequences. Though it may not possess the psychological tension or strong, convincing characters of Child 44, Speech is still an "insanely exciting story" (Independent).

Cited by the Critics

Gorky Park | Martin Cruz Smith (1981): Critics identified this literary thriller as another worthy crime novel set in the Soviet Union. When three corpses turn up in a Moscow amusement park-each missing its face and fingers-Chief Homicide Investigator Arkady Renko finds himself, in his quest for truth, pitted against the KGB, the FBI, and the dangerously dissident woman he loves.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

Zoya and Elena’s true parents were killed by an officer under Leo’s command. Do you think Leo was morally required to take care of them?

When Leo was a member of the state security force, it was his job to arrest many of his fellow citizens. To what degree should he be held responsible for his past actions, even though he was doing his duty and following orders?

How do you think the political atmosphere and the role of women in society affected Fraera’s transformation from a priest’s wife to a vory leader?

Raisa seems willing to sacrifice her relationship with Leo to save Zoya. What do you think of her decision?

As rioting gulag prisoners prepare to execute Sinyavksy, the camp commander, he pleads that he should be spared because in addition to the terrible things he has done while running the gulag, he has also tried help when he could. “Can I not try and put right the wrongs I have done?” he asks. Should the prisoners have given him a second chance?

Zoya ends up seeking her revenge on Leo by joining Fraera’s gang, but in doing so she hurts her little sister, the only family she still has. What do you think of Zoya’s actions?

Leo was trained to be a devoted, loyal servant of the State, but he forged an unorthodox path for himself outside of the security services, despite the clear risk. Why do you think he was able to do this, when so many others couldn’t or wouldn’t?

At the end of the story we meet a musician who is revered as a genius, but his work was actually stolen from another composer who died in the gulags. If he were to reveal the true source of his music, he would be exposed as a fraud and arrested as a thief. Now riddled with guilt he asks Leo, “What would you have me do?” How would you answer?

There are many “secrets” in this story—Leo choosing to not tell Raisa what he knows about Zoya and the knife, Raisa keeping her meeting with Fraera from Leo, and Khrushchev’s Speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, are only a few—and the question of what the consequences for keeping those secrets might be plays out in ways large and small throughout. Do you feel there are situations in the book where characters were right to keep their secrets? What about the final scene with Leo, Zoya, and Elena? Should Zoya tell her sister the whole truth?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Grand Central. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.