This is the second of the Leo Demidov trilogy about a former MGB officer in Moscow as Stalin's regime gives way to Khruschev. The title refers to the 'secret' speech given by Khruschev at which he denounced the state security systems for their brutal repressions under Stalin. At the start of the novel these are being distributed to former agents who either then kill themselves from remorse or from fear of what their neighbours will say or who are killed. This is a promising beginning: it offers the opportunity for menace to stalk the city in an atmosphere of moral ambiguity. Leo is, after all, the head of the Homicide Division and unbelievably good at his job, diagnosing that an apparent murder was a concealed suicide within a few minutes of seeing the body. Alas, any pretence at a whodunnit is swiftly abandoned as the Homicide Division is dissolved and the killer reveals herself by kidnapping Leo's adopted daughter in revenge for wrongs done to her by Leo in the past. The story turns into a thriller. Leo must travel to the Hungarian uprising via a prison ship and a Gulag in order to retrieve his daughter who has undergone a Patty Hearst style conversion and fallen for a young pickpocket.
This book has clearly been written with the intention of turning it into an action thriller film. Unfortunately it would be the sort of film that millions watch and I hate. A great deal of action is packed in: the story moves on relentlessly. Tank shells explode all around Leo and his family. Lesser characters are killed off with minimal grieving. Few scenes last longer than a few pages; some moments of potentially high drama last no more than a paragraph.
The characters are mostly shallow and unbelievable. The relationship between the boy who grew up as a pickpocket and became a thriller and the rebellious teenage girl is ludicrous. The transformation of the meek wife of a priest into a hardened manipulative criminal gang leader is justified by suggesting that she became embittered in the gulags. I just don't believe any of it.
Thrill-a-minute action with minimal depth. March 2014, 449 pages