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Friday, June 19, 2009

The Secret Speech, by Tom Rob Smith (hardcover, $24.99)

Tom Rob Smith has taken a historical fact -- in the 1950s Nikita Krushchev denounced Stalin in a radical speech before a closed session of the Soviet government -- and has spun a suspenseful and moving tale around it.

Leo Demidov of Child 44, Smith's award-winning debut novel, is now a homicide inspector in Moscow. He is no longer a part of the secret police, no longer sends people off to miserable lives in the gulags or to their deaths, if they are luckier.

He and his wife, Raisa, are raising two children, sisters who are orphans because of Leo. Zoya, 14 years old, hides her hatred of Demidov for the sake of her younger sister, who has come to care for Leo and his wife. But at night Zoya sometimes stands over a sleeping Leo with a kitchen knife in her hand, willing herself to plunge it into him to avenge her parents' deaths. Leo and Raisa, on the other hand, love the sisters unequivocally and with great passion. If Leo can patchwork this unlikely family together, then maybe he can begin to atone for the years he spent as an agent.

Copies of Krushchev’s “secret speech” are being copied and distributed all over the country, and people responsible for advancing and participating in Stalin’s regime of terror are being murdered. This becomes clear to Leo when he is asked to investigate the deaths. Everything Leo holds dear is threatened when he discovers he, too, is a target. His atonement has come too late.

Whether Smith is developing the big picture (the Soviet Union in turmoil) or the small picture (Leo’s agony as he tries to save each member of his disintegrating family), he wraps pathos and tension around a core story of a nation and individuals seeking redemption.

A minor quibble: Smith resorts to employing a larger-than-life character, a female terrorist named “Fraera,” who probably would be better suited to a Terminator movie. A person would be hard put to find a comparable character in a Le CarrĂ© or Martin Cruz Smith book, for instance. Complaints of mythic abilities aside, Fraera brings the action forward, melding Leo’s past life and its atrocities and his current life as detective and father. As the Soviet Union questions its foundations and political precepts, Leo must navigate the political hierarchy for help without knowing in whom he can really trust. Alliances and allegiances are many-layered and made of shifting sands.

In the end, the book is about hope and trust. It is about freefalling in dangerous situations and trusting that there will be a safety net at the end, that moral ambiguity will be resolved, that family will stand united in the end. Whether it really ends that way is irrelevant; to move through life, to put one foot in front of the other, it is necessary to hope.

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