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This is one of the most eagerly anticipated books of the season, and for good reason. Tom Rob Smith's debut novel, "Child 44," was a high-voltage blockbuster that was nothing short of sensational. In this, the sequel, he has accomplished what few writers have been able to pull off -- an expertly crafted story as powerful and addictive as its predecessor.
It is 1956, and Stalin is dead. The Soviet Union is unhinged by grief and trepidation. The monster has left millions of corpses in his wake and a gulag of slave-labor camps that rings the land like a crown of thorns. It is a nation twisted by fear, a society in which the servants of the state are the criminals and the criminals the innocents.
Seeking to change the nature of the regime, Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, delivers a secret speech to the party leadership in which he acknowledges Stalin's crimes. In a land where tests of one's loyalty were constant -- and often lethal -- many refuse to believe Khrushchev actually gave the speech; those who do rejoice in solitude. Others quietly plot their revenge.
Leo Demidov, a member of the state security apparatus, is wrestling with his own demons. He has been rewarded with command of a special homicide unit for tracking down the serial killer in "Child 44." But his old comrades distrust him, ordinary Russians despise him and those he has directly wronged see him as the personification of evil. Now one of those demons is slashing its way toward him over the mangled bodies of fellow police officers.
Demidov has sought to atone for past sins by adopting with his wife, Raisa, the two daughters of parents who died during one of his previous crackdowns on "enemies of the people." The eldest girl, whose hatred of Demidov is palpable, becomes the pawn in a murderous conspiracy. To rescue her, and save his own sanity, Demidov must somehow free an Orthodox priest who was sent to the gulag years ago during one of the periodic repressions of the church in which Demidov was an uneasy participant.
The author's keen understanding of Soviet society and his knowledge of the criminal gangs that operated in a kind of parallel world give the story the gripping realism that is the hallmark of his writing. The story sweeps the reader through Moscow's netherworld and into the icy wasteland of the gulag. In a major twist, Demidov finds himself in Budapest as Hungarians rise up against their Communist oppressors. And, of course, there are electrifying revelations that leave the reader primed for more of Smith's unique storytelling.
"The Secret Speech" is the antidote to the assembly-line thrillers that are so common these days. Do not miss it.
Michael J. Bonafield is a former editor at the Star Tribune. He also reviews books for the Wall Street Journal.