I suppose the logical step after your debut novel has sold over a million copies and won the Crime Writer’s Association (CWA) Ian Fleming Steel Dagger 2008 award is to sit down and write another book. And, considering the vast and detailed research of Russian history you performed for that novel, it would make fairly good sense to draw on some unused elements to produce a sequel.
This all seems very logical and simple but the critics don’t refer to it as, ‘the difficult second novel’ for no reason. I always assumed this was because the writer had exhausted all his or her creative juices writing the first novel, or because the first novel was so good it would be almost impossible to similarly excite critics a second time.
In the case of The Secret Speech, the latter is certainly true, critics were slightly disappointed with Tom Rob Smith's second outing because this is not as good a book as its predecessor (Child 44). Regardless, what Tom Rob Smith has managed to create by focussing on one element of his research and imagining where that one historic event in Russian history would take the lives of his fictional characters is brilliant.
The event in question and the entire premise for the book is a secret speech which was delivered by Russian First Party Secretary, Nikita Khrushchev at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on February 25, 1956. The speech, delivered three years after the death of brutal dictator, Josef Stalin, launched a bitter attack on Stalin’s murderous regime and promised a more peaceful, less paranoid existence for Russian citizens. It dramatically changed the lives of citizens of the time and installed fear in some areas of society, particularly those who were members of the Russian secret police force, the MGB. The one-time murderous, torturing agents who arrested the innocent and the guilty without bias now became hunted by ex-prisoners or relatives intent on revenge for years of incarceration or murdered loved ones.
The novel again revolves around the life of former MGB officer, Leo Stepanovich Demidov. It picks up where the first book ends, Leo has left the hated MGB at his wife Raisa’s insistence and is now conducting 'real police work' by leading his own homicide investigation team. The main focus of their lives however is their two adopted daughters, Zoya and Elena who they are determined to protect and to raise in as normal a way as possible.
The problem is that Zoya and Elena were ‘saved’ by Leo and Raisa from life in a notorious Russian orphanage where they were placed due to Leo’s earlier involvement in their parent’s death. Leo and Raisa think they can make amends for Leo’s past by giving the girls every opportunity they never had but the oldest daughter, Zoya is unforgiving and the hate for her new father’s past intensifies and culminates in her rebelling at every opportunity. A shadowy, dangerous Vory (organised Russian criminal gang) figure, inflamed and motivated by the injustices outlined in the speech and intent on revenge, emerges from Leo’s past and things turn violent and Zoya is drawn in to a dangerous world where only a man with Leo’s training and background can save her, from herself.
As previously mentioned, the book is no match for Child 44 but is still a very enjoyable read although perhaps a bit drawn out. Most of the action takes place in the Russian gulags (forced labour camps) or during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 where workers and students protested against Soviet Communist rule on the streets of Budapest.
The central plot is strong but not as interesting as that of Child 44 which is based on the real-life murders on serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo and I think this is why the book just fails to meet its older brother’s standard.
The determination to end the killings is what drives Leo in Child 44 and helps him stay resilient in intolerable situations. He faces even worse situations this time around but it's love for his family that is his driving force now and although noble enough, some of the coincidences risk being a little unbelievable and some situations a little twee. For example, the Vory are a hardened, organised criminal gang bred in the gulag system in Stalinist Russia but I couldn't help imagining them as the gang from Crocodile Dundee II who help Mick distract the baddies by making animal noises while Mick knocks out a mansion's security cameras by throwing stones.
I can't be too critical about this book though as I really enjoyed it but I wouldn't read it without reading Child 44 first as I think knowing the characters' background makes it a much more enjoyable experience. Tom Rob Smith is a great writer and does his research very well so the books are also a fantastic learning experience and made me want to learn more about that period of Russian history. I also look forward to reading the third instalment in the series, Agent 6.