Tom Rob Smith's second novel, "The Secret Speech", is an action-packed thriller set in the Soviet Bloc at the start of its post-Stalinist era. Rather than provide a run-of-the-mill East-versus-West spy story, however, Smith has chosen to use the de-Stalinisation programme of the early Khrushchev years and the events of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 as a setting for an exciting and engaging action drama. The main protagonist, Leo Demidov, is a former MGB (secret police) agent who, while attempting to atone for his earlier life and his role in the Stalinist purges, and also to provide a normal family home for his wife and two adopted daughters -- children orphaned as a result of his own earlier denunciation of their parents -- suddenly finds himself at the centre of a brutal and far-reaching back-lash against former Stalinist supporters.
The action flows across the pages in a fast and furious fashion with never a dull moment, as Leo battles against both the odds and the system -- reminiscent sometimes of a Russian Jack Bauer -- to preserve the State and to protect both himself and his family from the villains of the piece. As a lively and engaging read, Smith cannot really be faulted, unless it is perhaps that he packs in rather too much action and adversity for the hero to face, with there being altogether too many close calls than are necessary to make a good story. After a while, the rhythm of crisis/progress/setback/success becomes so endlessly sustained as to become somewhat predictable, with many a cliché along the way. Hollywood will love it.
For me, the book's biggest failings are Smith's complete inability to present a credible picture of the austerity of Soviet life of those times, or to evoke any of the atmosphere of fear and paranoia which permeated all lives behind the Iron Curtain throughout the Cold War -- factors which would have rendered both the premise and the details of this story entirely implausible. Smith's USSR bears more resemblance to a Soviet Union under Gorbachev's Perestroika than that under Khrushchev. Try Gillian Slovo's "Ice Road" if you want to see how much better this could have been handled.
In addition, Smith's plot line is often unnecessarily wayward and feels to be unnaturally contorted by a design intended to string together certain set dramatic scenes, more than to serve any greater over-riding story arc, coupled with a lack of focus as to where the human drama really lies. The closing chapters depicting events in Budapest in October and November 1956, for instance, read like dramatised re-tellings of old newsreel footage; as if such were the inspiration for the story as a whole, with the back-story being bolted on simply to get us to this concluding set of scenes.
For those who care not one jot about the historical accuracy of their novels and who like the action to be thick and furious, this book is sufficiently well written to keep one entertained over a long-haul flight, or engrossed through several long evenings with nothing better to do. Lots of the book is somewhat silly, but no more so than, say, "The Da Vinci Code". The author does need a lesson or two about the physics of aircraft and flying, though, and could really do to learn to rein back his need for a new crisis every ten minutes but apart from these lapses, he sure can write a good read!