About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

#72 - The Secret Speech

Today, I finished The Secret Speech, by Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central Publishing, 2009). This book is a sequel to Child 44, which I read earlier this year, and it does indeed meet my first sequel test: it stands perfectly well on its own, TYVM, whether or not you've read the earlier one.

The story is set about 4 years after Child 44 ends, though like its predecessor, it opens with a 1949 prologue that sets the stage for the action to come (though here, the relationship between this prologue and the main story is much clearer from the get-go). Lazar, a pragmatic priest who's more or less cooperated with the Stalinist regime, is standing in the crowd, waiting to watch the destruction of his Moscow church. When the demolition is botched, he rushes to save the handful of documents and icons that remain hidden in the building, aided by his wife Anisya and young seminarian Maxim. Alas, he is caught by the authorities -- and shocked to learn that his protege, Maxim, is none other than secret police officer Leo Demidyev. Both Lazar and Anisya are hauled off, presumably to the gulag, as the curtain falls.

Fast forward seven years. After his success tracking down the serial killer in Child 44, Leo's now working in the legitimate (if not well-publicized) homicide division of the Moscow police department. This entails none of the secret arrests and coerced confessions of his old job, and in the intervening years, he and his wife Raisa have, belatedly and tentatively, built an honest, even loving relationship. However, at 14, Zoya, the elder of the two daughters they adopted at the end of Child 44, still hasn't forgiven Leo for his role in her parents' murder. As the story begins, Leo receives a middle-of-the-night phone call from a distraught former colleague. Thinking him merely drunk, Leo advises the man to go back to sleep, and promises they'll talk in the morning.

And then all hell breaks loose. Rising party leader Krushchev's secret speech denouncing Stalin's purges and cult of personality has just been made public, with tremendous consequences. Leo's panicked colleague, terrified that his wife and children will learn of his role in Stalin's brutalities, murders them in their sleep before killing himself. Zoya is inspired to stand up in school and denounce Stalin
herself; not surprisingly, she and Raisa (a teacher) are soon looking for a new school. She then offers Raisa a startling ultimatum: if Raisa wants Zoya to live with her and behave as her daughter, she must leave Leo. (Did I mention that, in all the confusion, Leo puts two and two together and realizes that someone in the doorway the night of the phonecall + a mysterious knife on his floor = Zoya plotting to kill him in his sleep?)

However, before Zoya can make good on her threat, she is kidnapped. The culprit, not surprisingly, is a specter from Leo's past: Anisya, now d/b/a Fraera and leading a cell of an increasingly powerful underground gang, the vory. Fraera has an ultimatum of her own for Leo: either he must free Lazar from the gulag where he's spent the last seven years, or Zoya will be executed. While restrictions have loosened in the wake of Krushchev's speech, there are still limits ... and in order to save Zoya, Leo must pose as a prisoner himself, and come face to face with the fate to which he consigned so many others. Moreover, even when he completes his mission, he learns that Fraera has only begun to extract her revenge.

The Secret Speech takes us from Moscow to the wasteland of the Gulags to the doomed Budapest uprising of 1956, and has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as did Child 44. Great literature this isn't; none of the characters are especially well-developed, and (yes, I know this is a frequent complaint of mine with novels of a certain style) many of the scenes have a slightly-implausible, Hollywood action movie feel to them. Nonetheless, it is exciting (mostly; the pacing was a little off in places), and it raises some intriguing questions about how cruelty affects the perpetrators, and what's left when a brutal, repressive system is suddenly discredited. If you like spy novels and/or James Bond-style action, you'll probably enjoy this one.

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