To say that Tom Rob Smith's debut novel, Child 44, caused something of a sensation in the crime-thriller field would be to understate the case. Here, unarguably, was a novel of striking authority, despite an annoying tic, repeated in The Secret Speech: all speech is in italics, granting everything an equal over-emphasis.
In his latest book, Smith has largely quashed the dreaded "second-novel syndrome". This second outing for the conflicted former Soviet law enforcer Leo Dormidov shows that the proposed trilogy of novels will be something special. Leo began Child 44 as a poster boy for Stalin's brutal police force, making accommodations with himself to enforce the status quo. Then he underwent a crisis of conscience, resulting in the arrest of his wife, and in Leo becoming the quarry.
How to reactivate the dynamic of that first book? Cannily, Smith begins with a flashback to 1949, with Leo beating a man over the concealment of music by an "anti-Soviet" composer. It's a harrowing scene, but Smith is again able to enlist our sympathy for the compromised protagonist. The narrative jumps to 1956; Stalin is dead, and the grim regime begins to come apart. It's the time of Khrushchev's revisionist pronouncements (including the "secret speech"), which denounce the horrors of Stalinism. Ex-policeman Leo, his wife, Raisa, and their daughters are in the firing line again, this time because of the new perception of the secret police as criminals; their brutality is being bloodily paid back in reprisals.
Leo's attempts to save his family plunge him into a scary odyssey, from the gulags of Siberia to Hungary's violent streets. Smith has spoken of his admiration for Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, in which the protagonist has to atone for collusion with evil. That book is a template for Leo's ordeal in The Secret Speech, and if the comparison seems grandiose, one has to admire Smith's ambition. The moral conflicts just about keep pace with the tension in a narrative packed with a dizzying mass of incident.