The Secret Speech is the sequel to Child 44. Unfortunately the sequel is extremely disappointing. The narrative is chaotic, writing style is rushed, psychological tension is weak and character development lacks depth.
The premise is intriguing because once again the story is based on real events. The novel starts in 1956, after Stalin’s death, and three year later after the events in Child 44. Leo, his wife Raisa and their two adopted girls live in Moscow where Leo works for the city homicide division. Leo tries to be a good family man and an honorable officer who left his shameful past behind.
Meanwhile the country’s violent regime begins to fracture, and Stalin’s successor Khrushchev pledges reform. The country faces a lot of challenges as it takes steps towards de-Stalinization. However, there are people who are unwilling to accept changes, especially those who benefited and participated in the repression.
Leo is facing his own personal challenges. A former loyal servant of the Stalinist regime, he is as guilty as everyone else from his past. He tortured, he arrested, he ruined people’s lives. His past catches up with him, and Leo’s family is in grave danger (once again) from a nemesis, dangerous and conniving, with a plan to destroy.
Leo’s desperate mission to save his family takes him to the criminal underworld, harsh Siberian Gulags, and even to the center of the Hungarian uprising. The man travels the world, survives sea storms, prison ships, tortures, chases and comes out of it all unharmed. By the last page the reader will think that Leo Demidov is a superhero, a Russian James Bond, an immortal policeman. Anyone else, an ordinary human being like you and I, would be dead twenty pages into the book. I guess, Smith could not write the sequel as a short story (even though, I think readers would benefit more if it would be a short story), so Leo fights, runs, jumps, shoots, and survives.
There are two underlying themes of the novel: a thorny question of second chances for people who may not have deserved a first, and a subject of betrayal. Both of those matters are deeply philosophical questions that could have been developed in a very powerful and exploratory way. For example, the book could have explored on a much deeper level the question of shifting morals, political and legal grounds of the country that lost more than 10 million people to Stalin’s regime.
However, instead of analyzing betrayal as a human nature and maintaining the psychological tension, Smith goes into the explorations of Leo’s supernatural survival skills. Smith spits out on his readers an action overload that creates Hollywood-esque atmosphere of James Bond movies. Maybe a less complex plot would be more satisfactorily and could have produced some emotional resonance that the novel, unfortunately, lacks.