A good holiday read, I picked it up in Ireland, browsed through it on a flight before finishing it abroad, eventually leaving it in a hotel book exchange shelf. I noticed days later that it was still there. No takers, which surprised me a bit given the coverage the three novels in this series have received thus far. The secret and the illicit seemingly not endowed with eqaul drawing power.
There is not the same saturating sense of drizzle-dull bleakness that formed a backdrop to Child 44. The greyness remains but is punctuated by a more humane principal character. The main cast first time around make the step over without showing the joints: the formidable Leo Demidov and his wife Raisa, described throughout as beautiful.
The homicide department that Leo heads up pursues an evidential truth rather than a politicised one. Not always welcome where the Soviet regime of truth was quite comfortable with its lies and delusions. The launching pad for the novel is the speech delivered by Nikita Khrushchev at the 1956 CPSU conference shortly after Stalin’s death. The speech was heavily critical of Stalin’s excesses, a sort of Glasnost within Stalinism rather than Gorbachev’s 1980s one against it.
The speech was a catalyst for those who saw a chance to exact retribution on the security police, its torturers, blackmailers, spies and soul breakers. Those not nice to the people they meet on the way up, beware. They are sure to be met on the way down again when the shoe is on the other foot and the fortunes of those in descent less propitious. The bureaucracy, less than joyous at the anticipated kick in the stones, moved to protect its interests and push back against the tide of reform it feared the speech heralded. For those imbibed on the elixir of command, wakening up sober in a democracy the morning after the authoritarian night before, the prospect was simply too much to contemplate. For the cops of the secret state there would be no reports, blame or guilt. What they had they definitely intended to hold: the state belongs exclusively to the communist nobility and society is a mere hunting ground, where the human animal is the prey. Post mortem, if required, horns can be made to fit the human skull as evidence that it really was a dangerous beast being pursued.
When the opportunity presents itself for the hunted to become the hunter, the long grass yields and parts under the force of the stampeding herd. The pent up resentment and anger nourished by the years of impotent waiting emerges from the savannah and can only be sated by revenge. For Leo that past comes in the form of a woman he betrayed, Fraera, now the leader of a criminal gang. Leadership there is a much coveted men-only position. That she secured it suggests she is more than a formidable opponent. Deadly fits better.
The ideological exploration of Soviet society has not been displaced as such but its focus has shifted to the prison camps at the desolated edge of the outstretch. The reader is brought into the camp system of the Gulag Archipelago. It captures the cheapness of life so well depicted by Solzhenitsyn in both his camp trilogy and in his novel on Ivan Denisovich. It concentrates on the lives of those brutalised by the Soviet system and those who, while living within it, have opted to live outside its rules – the Vory gangs. In the most oppressive rule bound systems there is always space for rule breakers to survive. The seedy side of the socialist utopia is never far way, bubbling beneath the surface of official propaganda.
The burning communism that drove Leo in the first novel had been replaced by a new passion – family. Sometimes the bond of family is where the once powerful retreat to when they lose the means to dominate and control. As this novel illustrates they can’t live without their families but on occasion tragically cannot die without them either. Leo yearns for the satisfaction that comes with being a loved step father for the girls he adopted. Their role in Child 44 is a cameo one but it spans the narrative in its entirety here.
The Hungarian fighting, which the secret speech eventually ignited, as the story moves towards its denouement seems too contrived, shaped to allow an outcome that shears off the jagged edges. It fails to fill the nostrils with the stench of war that wafts out from the pages of authors such as Beevor or Erikson. While they are historians rather than novelists, Smith could still have found in Leon Uris a template for street fighting via the pages of Mila 18.
Secret Speech is not the murder mystery that Child 44 was although the script abounds with murder and mystery aplenty. While a decent read it leaves a feeling that Smith might have rushed his fences still flushed with the success of his opening book.
Tim Rob Smith, 2009. The Secret Speech. Simon & Schuster: UK. ISBN-10-0857204092