Crime fiction fans everywhere were delighted last year when Tom Rob Smith’s first thriller, Child 44, made the long-list for the Man Booker Prize. His follow-up, The Secret Speech, is a sequel to his acclaimed debut, continuing the adventures of Leo Demidov. Khrushchev has come to power, and he makes a speech—in theory, a secret speech—that reveals the corruption and horror of Stalin’s brutal reign and leads to the release of scores of prisoners from the country’s gulags.
Demidov had worked as a State Security agent and does not have a spotless past, but he’s moved on, taking a post running a homicide unit and trying to be a decent man. He loves his wife, is devoted to the daughters he adopted (after sending their parents to their deaths) and wants an ordinary life. But escaping from what he’s done isn’t so easy, especially once he’s in the sights of people whose families suffered under Stalin.
Fraera, the leader of a vicious gang, has demanded the release of her husband, a priest who was put in prison by Demidov, but it’s clear her mission is also to cause Demidov deep psychological suffering. She’s fixated on revenge. When she kidnaps one of Demidov’s daughters, the desperate father sets off on a breathtaking race to save the girl, moving from Moscow to Siberia to Budapest, facing the demons of his past at every turn.
Smith writes action relentlessly and fills The Secret Speech with vibrant descriptions of the post-Stalin Soviet Union without once letting his breakneck pace slip. The brutal violence and drab mood paint a realistic picture of a bleak era. Smith also continues to develop his wonderfully complex protagonist and torments him like few other authors could, making the reader worry about him on every page. Demidov has to face his past guilt head-on, a particularly difficult task when he goes into the prisons where those he’s arrested have spent years in agony.
Meticulously plotted and deliciously complicated, Smith’s sophomore effort doesn’t disappoint.
Tasha Alexander is the author of A Fatal Waltz. She lives in Chicago.