Catching a murderer is hard. Catching a murderer when, officially, there’s no such thing as murder is almost impossible. Such was the gripping premise of Tom Rob Smith’s wrenching 2008 debut “Child 44,” which won accolades and was long-listed for the Booker Prize.
In that novel, Leo Stepanovich Demidov, a member of the Soviet secret police, decided he wanted to catch a real bad guy for a change – and nearly destroyed himself and his wife doing it. (Leo suffered a crisis of conscience when confronted with an indisputably innocent “spy,” a veterinarian he was expected to torture for information. Among other home truths, he discovered that his wife was terrified of him and only married him because she was afraid he’d have her arrested.)
Three years later, at the opening of The Secret Speech, Demidov heads a homicide department created from the clout he won catching the killer of dozens of children. (Did I mention that “Child 44” is dark? Miss Marple would have collected her knitting and run – in a very ladylike manner, of course – for the exit.) “The very existence of his department was considered by many militia and KGB officers to imply an unacceptable degree of criticism of both their work and the State. In truth, they were correct.”
At work, Leo tracks down criminals – hoping that one day he can bring in enough guilty people to balance the list of innocents he’d arrested. His mission, however, is hampered with certain difficulties that most detectives don’t have to deal with. For example, “no citizen could contact the homicide department because no citizen knew it existed.”
At home, he and his wife, Raisa, are devoted to the two sisters they adopted after one of Leo’s men killed their parents, who were being arrested as dissidents. “Observing him around the girls, it struck Raisa that he behaved as if he were cursed, a character in a children’s fairy tale and only the words – I love you – spoken by both girls, could break the dark magic of his past.... Once fanatical about Communism, he was now fanatical about his family. His vision of Utopia had been made smaller, less abstract and though it now encompassed only four people, rather than the entire world, it remained just as elusive.”
Elena, the younger sister, seems to be adapting; but 14-year-old Zoya refuses to be won over by the man she holds responsible for her parents’ deaths. She stays only for Elena’s sake. At night, she stands over Leo’s bed, holding a knife and imagining revenge.
Zoya isn’t the only one fantasizing about making Leo pay. Stalin has died, and the country is uneasily trying to find its way without the dictator.
What happens in a country where the police were criminals, and most of the “criminals” were innocent? As one of Leo’s superiors says, “We’re not talking about a list of five names. We’re talking about millions of people, all of them either actively involved or complicit. Have you considered the possibility the guilty might outnumber the innocent? That the innocent might be a minority?”
Then someone starts handing out copies of Nikita Kruschshev’s “Secret Speech,” denouncing the excesses of the Stalinist regime, and former secret service agents start turning up dead. As Leo investigates their deaths, he discovers that the ringleader has a connection to an early case – back when he wholeheartedly believed that doing the State’s work was synonymous with doing the right thing. And three years’ worth of trying to make reparations don’t weigh very heavily in the scales of justice, as far as the people he arrested are concerned.
“This is your idea of redemption, yes? What does any of it mean to me?” the a voice from the past wants to know. “What of the debt you owe to men and women you arrested? How is that to be paid? Are you planning to build a modest stone statue to commemorate the dead? Will you put up a brass plaque with our names written in tiny letters so they all fit in?”
The identity of the murderer was one of the least satisfying aspects “Child 44.” Fortunately, Smith doesn’t make the same mistake twice, although “The Secret Speech” is a thriller rather than a mystery. In this case, though, the plot is crammed with so many incidents – from a visceral piece set on a prison ship bound for the gulag to the foiled Hungarian revolution – that “The Secret Speech” starts to feel episodic near its end.
But one of the great strengths of Smith’s writing is that readers can never relax their guard – like that prison ship, the ground is never steady beneath his protagonist. It’s all too believable to see Leo powerless in the face of bureaucracy, conspiracies, and the horrifying results of his own deluded past.
The question of what is owed the wronged is a compelling one; when forgiveness isn’t on the agenda, the moral ambiguities pile higher even than the body count. And Leo himself remains fascinating in his quest, not for heroism, but for something possibly even more elusive: decency.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.