BookBrowse Reviews The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith

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The Secret Speech

by Tom Rob Smith

The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith
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  • First Published:
    May 2009, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2010, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Tom Robb Smith's thrilling sequel to Child 44

The historical context for The Secret Speech is a presentation by Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev of a paper entitled The Personality Cult and its Consequences, delivered to the 20th Party Congress on February 24-25, 1956. The speech condemned Stalin, his policies and the people who carried them out. It was called "The Secret Speech," because it was delivered behind closed doors and, in theory, no one outside the room was to know of its contents (although it was widely – and probably deliberately – leaked to the public). Smith's novel focuses on the wide-ranging consequences of the speech.

Like its predecessor Child 44, The Secret Speech is top-notch historical fiction showcasing Smith's excellent grasp of 1950s Soviet politics. He is particularly good at illustrating the complexities that pervaded the era; there is no black and white, decisions and actions are finely drawn in shades of gray. The reader will unquestionably leave the book feeling they've gained a better understanding of this chapter of Soviet history.

The protagonist of both books is Leo Demidov, a man as complicated as the time period in which he lives. He has moments of bravery and empathy, but also times when he's brutal and insensitive. Readers may feel a certain sympathy for him, but its unlikely to develop into affection; he's simply not the all-too-common charming, infallible hero of popular literature. The flip side, though, is that he is both unique and fascinating precisely because his character doesn't fit neatly into a stereotype.

Although a sequel, The Secret Speech does stand on its own reasonably well. It's likely, however, that readers would benefit from spending time with Child 44 before tackling this novel. The earlier book provides historical context that most will find helpful, as well as important information about Demidov and his family that will put these characters in better perspective.

While Child 44 fits squarely within the mystery genre, The Secret Speech is more of a thriller. With plentiful gunplay, explosions, torture, death, and general mayhem, it's so action-packed that at times it seems like it could be a screenplay for next summer's blockbuster movie; and Smith's ability to convey this type of action on paper will have the reader barely able to turn the pages fast enough to keep up.

However, it is not without flaws. One has the feeling that the author has tried to cover too much territory in this single volume. He addresses not only the Secret Speech and its impact, but prison ships, gulags, the rise of the vory-v-zakone (see sidebar) and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. For example, the scenes taking place aboard the prison ship and in the gulag are very exciting, but also shallow and ill-conceived; the reader wonders why these sections were included as they add very little to the story. In addition, some important characters are flat and lacking in credibility. The biggest criticism that The Secret Speech is likely to contend with is that it's simply not as strong a novel as the first book in the series.  Nevertheless, those who enjoyed Child 44 will mostly find their time well spent with The Secret Speech, and will have the third volume in this planned trilogy to look forward to.

The Vory-v-zakone

Leo Demidov's prime antagonist throughout The Secret Speech is the leader of a Russian criminal gang known as the vory.

The vory, or more officially the vory-v-zakone, is a criminal organization that arose in the gulags during the Stalin years. Over time this group has morphed into a powerful international organization referred to as the Russian Mafia. (The 2007 movie Eastern Promises, starring Viggo Mortensen, concerns a modern-day vory cell in London.)

Vory-v-zakone translates as "Thieves in Law" – i.e., thieves who follow a code. The organization of the 1930s to mid-1950s was based on a system of discipline, tradition and rank which originated in the Soviet labor camps in the 1920s. Any activity that suggested that the state had power over the vory was forbidden.  All proceeds had to be gained by theft and members were forbidden from joining the army, paying taxes or working while imprisoned.  Sometimes prisoners known to be vory would be punished by the camp guards but as a general rule the camp authorities avoided direct confrontation with them.  In addition to not serving in the military, vor were forbidden from having a family (although lovers were permitted), and had to agree to never go to the police to redress a wrong, nor to testify in a criminal case. They had to make good on promises given to other vor, teach the trade to young beginners (maliutka), and have good command of the vory jargon (fenia). They were never to attempt to redress a wrong committed by another vor on their own. Women were considered as property and had no place in the hierarchy of thieves.

The vory had no direct leader, although authority and respect were given to senior vory, known as pakhany. The skhodka was the organ of representation and control. Comprised of all members of the local vory cell, the skhodka judged matters of wrongs committed by one vor against another, or doled out punishment to those who broke the code.

The original vory were virtually wiped out in the 1950s through fighting with other groups and the ending of the gulags, but they never entirely died out, and in the 1980s a new fraternity appeared which now has a leading role within the Russian criminal hierarchy.  Whereas the original vory were largely contained in the gulags and regional groups, the modern-day vory have been able to infiltrate top political and economic positions with an influence that stretches well beyond Russia involving everything from petty-theft to billion dollar money laundering.  Since the 1990s, Britain has been a particularly popular destination for Russians of many stripes to the point that it's capital is sometimes referred to as Londongrad.

Continued in the sidebar ...

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in June 2009, and has been updated for the May 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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