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The Secret Speech    by Tom Rob Smith order for
Secret Speech
by Tom Rob Smith
Order:  USA  Can
Grand Central, 2010 (2009)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Tom Rob Smith's The Secret Speech is a sequel to his extraordinary Child 44, which was set in the denounce or be denounced world of Stalin's Soviet Union, starring Leo Stepanovich Demidov (a war hero and member of the MGB) and his beautiful schoolteacher wife Raisa.

That first book put them both (but especially Leo) through the wringer as they took on the quixotic quest of tracking down a serial killer of over forty-four children in a state in which crime - by definition - did not exist. Leo succeeded, against all odds, and was reluctantly permitted to set up a homicide department (a secret one in a room above a bakery) and pursue evidential - not politicized - truth.

He and Raisa have adopted two girls, Zoya and Elena, daughters of a couple murdered by MGB agents acting under Leo, but not following his orders. Zoya, now fourteen and highly intelligent, has never forgiven Leo for her parents' deaths. To Raisa, Leo 'behaved as if he were cursed, a character in a children's fairytale and only the words - I love you - spoken by both girls, could break the dark magic of his past.'

The Secret Speech opens in 1949 to the demolition of a church and the subsequent arrest of a priest, Lazar, and his wife Anisya, betrayed by an undercover MGB agent (with whom she had had an affair) for hiding anti-Soviet musical compositions. Though her young lover offered her an escape, Anisya remained loyal to her husband and suffered the consequences.

Fast forwarding seven years to 1956, Stalin is dead and Khruschkev has taken power. Rumors have begun to circulate, of a Secret Speech in which Khruschkev criticizes his predecessor's 'summary executions and torture' and those who carried them out in Stalin's name. A series of killings begin in Moscow, of Chekists (State Security officers). Leo investigates, until he becomes a target himself. Zoya is kidnapped.

Leo and Raisa embark on a second quixotic quest - to save the daughter who doesn't want to be rescued. Zoya is the extreme troubled teen, who creates tornadoes of turmoil in her adoptive parents' lives. Like Patty Hearst, she joins her tattooed captors in their violent escapades, admiring their ferociously ruthless leader Fraera, and bonding with a boy named Malysh.

Fraera has plans for Leo. First she sends him to the Gulag (he goes undercover as a prisoner) to free her husband. He suffers tortures at the hands of fellow inmates, who denounce him as a Chekist, before escaping with his prize in the nick of time and with pursuit hot on his heels. Then he and Raisa follow Fraera's gang to Budapest, Hungary, where Fraera works to foment dissent against Russia.

Tom Rob Smith goes no easier on his lead in The Secret Speech than in Child 44, and betrayals nest again like Russian Matryoshka dolls. It's hard to read some of the details of what Leo is put through in this story in which revenge is indeed served cold, at times taking the reader's breath away. But our antihero continues to win redemption. Leo recovers a fragile family life and, ordered to join the KGB, follows another path. The Secret Speech is a superlative story, absolutely not to be missed.

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