The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith

Nikita Khrushchev’s so called “Secret Speech” is the central spark to the events of Tom Rob Smith’s The Secret Speech.  For those who have not read Smith’s previous novel, CHILD 44, pick it and read it first, because this novel is a continuation of certain characters from that story. Smith’s debut novel CHILD 44, garnered both critical and commercial acclaim.  Secret Speech is set in the period of the “Khrushchev thaw” in the Soviet Union, when, in his eponymous secret speech to the 20th Communist Party Congress, Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s dictatorship, the police state, and the Stalinist policy of arbitrary detention and sometimes liquidation of political dissenters.

During this period millions of political prisoners were released, and the liberalization policy did not meet with the approval of hardline conservatives. It was opposed particularly by some factions in the KGB, the secret police, and led to power struggles, with some trying to promote and some trying to hinder liberalization. It is around this that the plot of the novel is built, and particularly the fear of some KGB members that the newly-released political prisoners might seek vengeance on those who denounced and arrested them.

The book is all about wrongdoing, and how the sins of past, either recent or remote come back to haunt the sinner. As Demidov, is demonstrated in CHILD 44, a bad man who by the end of the book had sought to take a brighter path to redemption for the sins. The book opens with a flashback to one of the Demidov’s most evil actions, the arrest- and so much more- — of a priest that takes place in Moscow in 1949.

The story follows Leo as he works on the only homicide department in Moscow. He lives with his wife, Raisa, and their two adopted daughters, Zoya and Elena. Raisa works at one of the state schools, where all teachers are given the speech to read to their classes. Once this speech goes public, it paints a giant target on anyone associated with that old regime, with Leo dead in the sights of one certain female gang leader who was the wife of one of his false arrests. She wants her pound of flesh from Leo and will go about it anyway she seems fit, including kidnapping one of his daughters, with the payoff of making Leo head to the Gulags to bring her husband home.

Smith writes as if he is channeling the ghost of a street level Soviet official. In turn, one cannot be blamed if they reached the conclusion that Smith transcribes the fierce whisperings of any angry babushka who bore forced silent witness in the Stalin – era mayhems that were perpetuated against the soviet citizenry in the 1950s. Smith really paints the picture of sheer brutality of the prisoner camps, more so than some of the true accounts that have been published. But he could have easily ended the story to a certain point but no he has much more to tell, leading to the uprisings in Budapest.

Tom Rob Smith weaves this story so well, keeping all the balls in the air with even larger cast than before, and coming up with characters that are better defined. No matter how horrific and brutal some of their actions are, you feel for them.

Rating: 4/5




CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith


“Trust but check. Check on those we trust.” 

Child 44, a suspenseful and fast read, this novel captures beautifully well what it feels like to live in a dictatorial police state, in a way where a person must think in order to survive. Tom Smith clearly delineates the detective’s line of thought, along with the characters thoughts, to show that way of thinking which then defines actions.

Child 44 is set up in the 1950’s era of Soviet Union. A child was found dead with soil in his mouth and his family are sure that it is a murder case despite the boy’s body was found on the railway track. Leo Demidov, the protagonist/detective, is an MGB agent is sent to calm things and to pursue the family that this is nothing more than a tragic accident. Since the USSR has no crime, the boy’s death is ruled as an accident- a tragic one. But the boy’s death haunts Demidov, and when he comes across identical murder in small town of USSR, he decides to investigate further and find the killer.

This is a fascinating story, set in winter’s to begin and ends up in the height of summer’s heat. Smith switches point of view in interchanging paragraphs at many times which is handled like a pro by him, making very clearly whose POV he’s at each occurrence which could have led to dreadful confusion.  But what was confusing at time was the time of day it is- author does not make this point very clearly, specifically at the beginning of scenes.  There were times when wondered how Leo is doing things in the dead of night, but it turned out to be midday.  What else was missing was richly described settings. Russia has its own very rich landscape of beauty, the very magnificent and almost spiritual forests which could have added to Leo’s love for his country and deepening his character.

Tom Smith has carefully shown the psychology of people living in a totalitarian police state, but missed the mark with the psychological problem of serial killer. His serial killer character Andrei is far too rational, too self-aware and without any motivating inner fantasy to be convincing killer. The murders are about sending messages than showing the powerlessness Andrei feels- indeed most of the characters feel powerless in the face of the State and – a serial killer need domination, power and control to be a freak killer. Many serial killings are also sex crimes even when rape is not involved but there was little indication on this when reading Andrei’s POV.

The essence of thriller depends upon its plausibility. However, this could have been close to a perfect thriller were it not for some exciting, interesting but to the ultimately implausible events towards the end of the book.

For the first novel, Tom Smith’s Child 44 is an interesting, fun read. Tom Smith writing is good and looking forward for its other 2 books – The Secret Speech & Agent 6.

Rating: 3.9/5

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