Friday, January 8, 2010

The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith (unabridged audio book read by Dennis Boutsikaris)

Author Tom Rob Smith's The Secret Speech opens in 1949 with the destruction of a war-damaged Russian Orthodox church — stained glass exploding outward and lacerating the expectant crowd gathered to watch the spectacle.

It's the beginning of a series of events that will lead to new MGB agent Leo Stebanovich Demidov's first arrest. This is an excellent way to remind readers of Child 44 how Leo was before he underwent a sea change due to the events four years later, as chronicled in that novel (which you should probably read before this one).

Smith breaks the tension with a humorous segue into 1956 (the year The Secret Speech takes place) about a bookbinder with a famously bad reputation, that quickly turns tragic when his murder is investigated by the relatively new homicide squad begun by Leo in the years intervening between the two novels: a murder disguised as a suicide disguised as a murder.

It's 1956. Stalin is dead, and his tyrannous reign is at an end. His replacement, Nikita Krushchev, has had a typewritten "secret speech" delivered to every household in a box stamped "NOT FOR PRESS" giving the news that the new regime is going to be different. And the previously state-supported villains (read: government agents like Leo used to be) are to be publicly identified. The Soviet Union is under new management, so to speak.

Where the government was previously thought to be just, right, and infallible, Krushchev's speech states that things got way out of hand under Stalin. This causes a lot of inner turmoil in those who trusted and believed — and, like Leo's wife Raisa, taught the newer generation to do the same.

Meanwhile, an "untouchable" gang leader offers Leo an opportunity: "Free my husband, or I will murder your daughter." So Leo uses his contacts to get himself sent to Gulag 57 to break the man out. But the gulag is not a place where plans are easily carried out, and things begin to go awry by increasing orders of magnitude.

In some ways, The Secret Speech proves to be more viscerally entertaining than its predecessor, as Smith shows himself to be fairly adept at action scenes. Especially during the sea journey to the gulag, where a rough storm occurs at the same time as a prisoner uprising, with Leo's partner Timur Nesterov left to battle both.

But Smith doesn't skimp on the emotional turmoil that drove Child 44, either, with the Demidovs' adopted daughter Zoya (now 14) having a dramatic breakdown as she learns to deal with the fact that Leo was indirectly responsible for the death of her parents. (This shows an interesting flip in focus from the previous book's child murderer to this book's murderous child.) Also, Raisa is forced to choose between two people she loves.

Actor Dennis Boutsikaris continues with the skill and comfort with Russian accents that he displayed so well in Child 44. He reads with deftness and confidence, and his voice is smooth and flows easily into the ear. Boutsikaris is also given a chance to display his range in The Secret Speech, with a wider array of characters from a troubled teenager to a female gang leader to a world-weary investigator, and exhibits a surprising facility with them all.

Though The Secret Speech is not as fully gripping as its predecessor, especially toward the end where it eases into a conclusion, it's still worth a listen, particularly for those with interest in the repercussions of an important event in Russian history.

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