Secret Speech

She’d justified teaching such falsehoods since it was necessary that her students learn the language of adulation, the vocabulary of State worship without which they’d be vulnerable to suspicion.

Tom Rob Smith’s The Secret Speech follows on from his searing debut Child 44 and is set seven years after the life-changing events that sent former MGB agent Leo Demidov and his wife Raisa on the run and to the brink of death and back. Leo now oversees the newly minted Homicide Department together with his partner Timur, who previously helped Leo as a fugitive, and Raisa is back teaching. Together with two traumatised orphan sisters whom Leo and Raisa have adopted, they are slowly rebuilding their fractured lives.

But once again Leo is thrust into the glare of the Soviet government when ex-members of the MGB start turning up dead, all found with a page of a supposedly secret speech Khruschev is rumoured to be giving, a speech so explosive it will overturn the USSR as they know it and the lives of all of its loyal citizens. Retribution is coming and people are afraid. Without having access to this speech and when they do get a copy, tainted, both Leo and Raisa must navigate the treacherous path that binds their lives to that of the State. For the State knows everything and will do anything to control you. Even if it means you must renounce your previous beliefs.

Smith is a master at cranking up the tension and paranoia as he did in Child 44. The happiness Leo and Raisa have finally attained is brief before they are thrust into danger once again. And this time, they have two young, vulnerable girls to protect. As both Leo’s and Raisa’s pasts come back to haunt them, they increasingly risk losing the love of their elder daughter Zoya, who cannot forgive Leo for her parents’ deaths. With a teenager bent on anarchism to control, Leo needs to once again rely on his skills as well as those of his family to protect them all. Because he has also been sent a page from the secret speech signalling that whoever is behind the lynching is after him too.

This time, Smith delves into the underground world of the Soviet gangs forged in the Siberian Gulags, the vory, and their wrathful leader bent on revenge. As well as terrifying descriptions of the huge prison ships transporting prisoners to the Gulags, he is also adept at bringing to life the fervour and naïveté of young revolutionaries, brainwashed and who want to overthrow the USSR in the annexed states on the edges of Russia. With enemies all around him who would do anything to hurt his family, can Leo save them?

I loved this as much as I loved Child 44. Leo is still a very interesting character, trying so hard to change and earn the love of Raisa who he knows is prepared to do whatever it takes to protect their children, even if it means letting go of him. But the one thing you know about Leo is that he never gives up. He’s like a Soviet era Jason Bourne but with a little more feeling. And what can I say about Raisa? I love her character. She’s strong, resilient and is as much of a survivor as Leo. Smith has created a truly independent and intelligent character in Raisa who would do anything to protect her loved ones. Leo is led by instinct but it is Raisa who uses her brain. And no one character is easy or one dimensional in this novel, especially Zoya, Leo and Raisa’s eldest daughter, so full of anger and grief that she cannot see through the choices she makes, only it’s immediacy, how it would hurt Leo. And she does this admirably. It seems Leo is destined to be surrounded by strong women he cannot control.

There is a lot of history and politics packed into The Secret Speech but the engaging and immediacy of Smith’s prose will keep you turning the pages. Read it! But only after you’ve read Child 44.

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Child 44

Fear was cultivated. Fear was part of his job. And for this level of fear to be sustained it needed a constant supply of people fed to it.

Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 was all over the internet when I first started reading book blogs in 2008 and just before I started blogging myself. Reading about it everywhere made me very curious and every year I’d been meaning to give it a go but other books got in the way. But I’ve finally done it and in some ways I’m glad I waited because sometimes too much hype kills a book for me and Child 44 is one that fits perfectly into my perpetual fascination with all things Russian and Soviet era which began all those years ago with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and even further back with my father’s love of Marxism as a student with a political conscience.

What is it about Soviet Russia that still draws readers to novels set in that historical era? Shrouded in layers of secrecy, it’s only now that we are getting a clearer picture of how the Russians and their neighbours survived in such harsh times. Tom Rob Smith sets his tale in the 1950s just as Stalin’s power is waning with his health although the entrenched paranoia and cruelty is already an established force in Soviet political and daily life.

Terror was necessary. Terror protected the Revolution.

Leo Demidov is a proud believer in the Soviet State and a senior MGB officer at the Lubyanka, rooting out dissidence and upholding the reputation of the Soviet Union. A decorated officer, he lives a comfortable life with a beautiful wife, a nice apartment, access to food and goods and has been able to elevate his parents’ lives too. When he is ordered to pacify a colleague’s family after the death of their son, little does he know that this will start a chain of events which will lead to his career downfall and an epiphany so momentous that he will emerge a new man. A man with a conscience. As he ponders his past actions, he must confront the monster he has become just as he slowly realises that the death of his colleague’s son is not an accident but that there are more mutilated children’s corpses dotted around Russia which have been officially overlooked and swept aside. As he tries to salvage his soul, Leo begins to look into the murders and realises there is a serial killer on the loose. But in a State where the crime rate is supposed to be 0%, acknowledging a crime has happened is itself a crime. As Leo goes on the run with his wife, Raisa, time is running out as his rival, Vasili, who is determined to bring Leo down, closes in on him. Will Leo and Raisa catch the serial killer and, more importantly, can they survive in their own country? Because everyone has secrets, even Leo and Raisa.

Child 44 is indeed a tour de force, fast-paced and relentless and yet it dwells more on the state of Leo’s repentance and redemption that on the killings themselves based on the real-life serial killer Andrei Chikatilo. This is a welcome change to all the gore and violence so prevalent in today’s crime fiction which seem unnecessary when you realise that the real fear lies in the whispers of punishment and retribution that all Soviet citizens face if they put one foot wrong. Smith is masterful in showing the underlying fear and what people needed to do for survival in Stalin’s Russia. That you can trust no one is hammered into you from childhood, to have affection and sentimentality may mean your death. That you have choice in your life is also another. It’s a culture so close to ours and yet so alien.

Smith’s characters are full-bodied and in Leo, he has created someone who is not perfect and in some ways very naïve considering the kind of work he does. Outwardly, he is perfect, strong, trained in all the survival skills required as a soldier and operative. But emotionally, it is Raisa who is the stronger and who changes their relationship with each other. I love Raisa’s character, she is as strong as Leo, maybe not physically, but definitely mentally. And I can’t wait to read more about them in The Secret Speech and Agent 6, which complete the trilogy.

There’s a film based on the book coming out soon but I urge you to read the book first!

Blackout

After racing through both Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, I was keen to return to Connie Willis’ world, Oxford circa 2065, mixed with time travel back to the Blitz. As much as I enjoyed the light tone of To Say Nothing of the Dog, I was hoping that Blackout and All Clear would be closer to the darker, sombre and menacing mood in Doomsday Book. And it was and so much more.

Blackout and All Clear are two parts of one grand novel and so I will discuss them together. Set seven years after Doomsday book, we are once again reunited with Dr. Dunworthy, his team at Balliol College and Colin Templar who was just a boy in the earlier novel. Colin is now in his final year at school and preparing to get into Oxford to study under Dunworthy, his dream of time-traveling still unabated and perhaps stoked a little by his crush on Dunworthy’s student Polly who is sent back to 1940s London together with fellow history students Merope and Michael in order to complete their finals. All are armed with their required survival skills and knowledge including a list of crisis points and bombing schedules to keep them safe. Polly will be arriving in London to work as a shop girl, Merope as a maid in a country house to study evacuees and Michael, armed with an American accent to pass muster as a journalist, to study local heroes.

Everything goes smoothly for Merope who has been working for a couple of months looking after children from the East End, but as soon as Polly and Michael appear, things start to go wrong. Due to the build up of slippage, they arrive at different coordinates and time which means they are stranded. But confident in the information they possess, they try to get to where they are meant to be, looking for work and their contacts. And so begins their quest for survival as they slowly realise that their team in Oxford have no idea where or when they are when they fail to rendezvous and report back to their lab. There is no way back except to pray that Dunworthy will come to save them in time. For the clock is ticking and the list of expected bombing dates is only as long as their carefully planned stay. In the meantime, Merope finds herself in charge of two East End tearaways, Michael finds himself in Dunkirk, the last place he expected to be and one which should have been impossible as it is a major crisis point, and Polly finds herself drawn into an amateur acting troupe in her local shelter.

Both Blackout and All Clear are all about the race against time. Will Merope, Polly and Michael manage to find each other? And even if they do, will they be able to send messages back into the future for Mr. Dunworthy to mount a rescue operation? As the days pass and the dangers increase, Polly can only pray that Colin will do as he has promised; that he will come and find her wherever she is.

Willis has really outdone herself here. Apart from conjuring up how it must have felt like to be alive during this time, the constant fear, unexpected camaraderie and kindnesses, the resilience of the common people which broke through the class barrier which is reminiscent of Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch in its depiction of London, she has also built this into an intricate plot with time travel, parallel timelines and history assignments. For the one cardinal rule of time-travel is that you can go back as many times as you like except you can’t inhabit the same time and place twice. There is a deadline and one of the students is in danger unless they can get out in time.

I keep saying this again and again; Willis has created a credible and vibrant universe, not so different from our own in which time-travel exists with all its paradoxes and problems of slippage. Her time-travel theories are in themselves fascinating but it is her story-telling and characters which will remain with you long after you finish reading her novels. It’s difficult to do her novels justice when trying to describe them, her plots are intricate and she really brings alive the historical periods into which she delves. And it’s not surprising that Blackout and All Clear have won the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2011 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and the 2011 Hugo Award for Best Novel. So I do urge you, go and read them!

All Clear

To Say Nothing of the Dog

Because around a crisis point, even the tiniest action can assume importance all out of proportion to its size. Consequences multiply and cascade, and anything – a missed telephone call, a match struck during a blackout, a dropped piece of paper, a single moment – can have empire-tottering effects.

Following on from Doomsday Book which saw one of the Oxford historians sent back in time to a plague-ridden Middle Ages, Connie Willis returns with To Say Nothing of the Dog (or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last) set in 2057 in Oxford but this time with a different set of students to probe Victorian England.

History student Ned Henry has been sent on several trips to the 1940s and even further back by the formidable Lady Schrapnell, who has hijacked all time-traveling personnel in Oxford, to search for the legendary bishop’s bird stump, a hideous ornament lost in the bombing of Coventry Cathedral during the Blitz. Trying to escape the tedium of combing through Edwardian jumble sales looking for clues as to the whereabouts of the bishop’s bird stump, Ned jumps at the chance to travel to the Victorian period on a job for Mr. Dunworthy of Balliol College. Unfortunately, due to severe time-lag, he falls asleep just as Mr. Dunworthy is prepping him on his mission and consequently arrives in Victorian Oxford without a clue as to what he must actually accomplish carrying only a covered basket. This sets in motion a number of unforeseen events. All he knows is that his mission has to do with a place called Muching’s End and a boat.

Looking for his contact, he falls in with a student named Terence St Trewes with a dog named Cyril who hires a boat to Muching’s End to chase after Tossie Mering who turns out to be Lady Shrapnell’s ancestor. Tossie is looking for her cat Princess Arjumand who has gone missing and, it later transpires, has been rescued from drowning by Ned’s fellow student Verity Kindle, thereby possibly altering time.

Verity returns to Muching’s End to ensure she hasn’t changed anything and to ensure Tossie gets to Coventry where she will meet her destiny and to enlist Ned to make sure history happens as it’s written. As both Verity and Ned navigate the social etiquette of Victorian Britain, trying to make sure they evade suspicion while completing their mission, it becomes increasingly clear that Mr. Dunworthy has plans of his own. Can Verity manage to evade the problems caused by her actions? And can Ned prevent Tossie and Terence from getting together? And will they find the blasted bishop’s bird stump?

Throw a dodgy spiritual medium into the mix and Willis has created a comedy of errors whilst also addressing the paradoxical nature of time travel. Discussions about slippage and consequences of actions are well thought out and once again Willis’ fascinating portrayal of time travel is a winner. However, To Say Nothing of the Dog is very different in tone to its predecessor Doomsday Book. We are once again reunited with Mr. Dunworthy and his team, but this novel is much more light-hearted; a comedy of manners with lots of missed chances, misunderstanding and unexpected twists.

It took me a while to get used to this new style but in the end Willis managed to hook my interest with her intricate plotting, a nice mixture of Austen and Christie with a conscious homage to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog!). As I haven’t read the novel, I doubtless missed any references which may have added to my pleasure however this didn’t in any way detract from my enjoyment. Winner of the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1999, To Say Nothing of the Dog is a difficult novel to summarise, so intricate is the plotting, but I urge you to try Willis’ work – it’ll be like nothing else you’ve read before.

Next stop: Blackout/All Clear.

Monogram Murders

Please let no one open their mouths and find the gold cufflinks with the initials PIJ.

Poirot returns with a bang in The Monogram Murders set in 1929 amongst the sumptuous art nouveau backdrop of the fictional Bloxham Hotel. Agatha Christie’s mantle is taken up by Sophie Hannah, a contemporary crime writer with a substantial following. Anyone taking over from the Queen of Crime is facing a daunting task. And any lover of Christie’s work will inevitably read the novel with a fine tooth comb.

However, Hannah does Christie proud. Her Poirot is faithful, perhaps more to David Suchet’s portrayal, but when you start reading The Monogram Murders you feel you are falling comfortably back into familiar territory. His sidekick is Edward Catchpool, a young and inexperienced Inspector of Scotland Yard who is alternately frustrated and in awe of Poirot.

The mystery begins at Pleasant’s Coffee House, where Poirot takes his daily evening coffee, when a terrified woman known only as Jennie rushes in seeking refuge. Before she vanishes into the night, she leaves Poirot with the mysterious

Once I am dead, justice will be done, finally.

which sets him off on his new quest.

Poirot is recently retired and is taking a staycation at Mrs. Unsworth’s lodging house where Catchpool also resides. When he returns that evening, he witnesses Catchpool coming to terms with three murders he is investigating at the posh Bloxham Hotel. All three victims died at around the same time in different rooms but laid out in the same way and with a monogrammed cufflink in their mouths.

Poirot feels there is a connection with the mysterious Jennie but Catchpool is doubtful. And so the pair embark on their first investigation together as they uncover a wrong that was done 16 years ago and what looks like revenge finally being enacted in the present day.

Although I began the book with some trepidation, once the mystery gets going, I began to feel Hannah’s rendition of Poirot and the mystery approaching Christie’s hallmark darkness and complexity. Re-reading Christie, whom I’ve been reading since I was nine, I am always astonished by the real darkness and deftness with which she layers her novels. And I am glad to say Hannah’s version does not disappoint.

Poirot is a national institution and staying faithful to who he is may risk stereotyping him but deviating would be disastrous. All the elements are here in The Monogram Murders, the young lovers, a free artistic spirit, the vicar, the doctor and the maid.

I really enjoyed getting back into Christie’s world and I do hope Hannah will continue in this vein.

Doomsday Book

I am also calling it the Domesday Book because I would imagine that’s what you’d like to call it, you are so convinced something awful’s going to happen to me. I’m watching you in the observation area right now, telling poor Dr. Ahrens all the dreadful dangers of the 1300s. You needn’t bother. She’s already warned about time lag and every single mediaeval disease in gruesome detail, even though I’m supposed to be immune to all of them. And warned me about the prevalence of rape in the 1300s. And when I tell her I’ll be perfectly all right she doesn’t listen to me either. I will be perfectly all right, Mr. Dunworthy.

Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book is an incredible novel. Well-written, pacey, it’s relentless in driving the story forward while keeping the terror just in check. Almost from the start, Willis flings you into the world of academic experimental history at Oxford circa 2054.

It’s just before Christmas and Kivrin, a Medieval history student, is determined to time-travel back to the Middle Ages to experience life as it really was. The absence of the Department Head meant that she was able to convince the acting Head at Brasenose College, Gilchrist, to authorise her drop even though Dunworthy, her mentor at Balliol, warns her against the dangers of traveling so far back in time. For Gilchrist. trying to maximise his trajectory up the career ladder, is planning to send Kivrin back to 1320, before the plague crosses over to England. With so little real information about actual daily life in the Middle Ages, Kivrin spends every moment of her time preparing, learning all the relevant languages, medical information, daily customs so that she will blend in seamlessly. Dr. Mary Ahrens has also prepped her at the hospital, giving her all the necessary inoculations including against bubonic plague, and enhancing her immunity.

Amidst severe misgivings from both Dunworthy and Ahrens, Kivrin goes through and the others make preparations to pick her up 2 weeks later. But something goes wrong and Badri, the university’s best tech who supervised the drop, falls ill just as soon as he finds Dunworthy. And Oxford goes into lockdown as a mysterious pandemic brings down those involved in Kivrin’s drop, one after another. The net, which allows the time-travel, works in a paradox where nothing that will change the course of history can get through. But something unforeseen has happened and no one is sure where Kivrin is. So what exactly happened here, and will they be able to get Kivrin back?

Kivrin finds herself transported to the Middle Ages but nothing is as she expected. The net was supposed to drop her near the village of Skendgate, close to Oxford, and her aim is to record everything she finds there so that when she returns she can help Dr. Montoya with her archeological dig. But she isn’t sure whether the trail she has found is the Oxford-Bath Road and whether the smattering of dwellings she spies down the hill is actually Skendgate. But she is suddenly overcome with fatigue and before she knows it, she is ill and someone has come to rescue her, and she finds herself in a household filled with fourteenth century people, in all their unwashed, superstitious glory. And she can’t understand them, their pronunciation differing from the Middle English she was taught. While Kivrin fears she will spend Christmas ill in bed instead of completing her research, something worse comes along and people begin to drop like flies. She should have landed in 1320, 28 years before the plague arrives in Oxford. But something has gone wrong.

She has a fever, but no buboes, and she isn’t coughing or vomiting. Just the fever.

In Doomsday Book Willis has created a complex, chaotic and thrilling tale mixing futuristic technology with old-world academic squabbling and melds it to the horrors of medieval society faced with the onslaught of the bubonic plague. It is seamless and the terror relentless. There is just a wonderful mixture of drama, speculation and comedy from a futuristic but still identifiable Oxford to a more earthy fourteenth century guise. I love the bit where Dr. Ahrens asks Kivrin whether she would like her nose cauterised as

the smells of the fourteenth century could be completely incapacitating, that we’re simply not used to excrement and bad meat and decomposition in this day and age. I told her nausea would interfere significantly with her ability to function.

And as Oxford in 2054 quickly buckles into a chaotic epicentre of disease control, Dunworthy, hounded by his secretary and a group of stranded American bellringers, finds a helper in Colin, Dr. Ahrens’ grand nephew, who injects a festive cheer in the nightmare from which he may be unable to rescure Kivrin. Colin is such a great character with his interjections of ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘necrotic’ which makes it seem as though he’s crawled out of an E. Nesbit book. And Kivrin is a protagonist that Willis can be proud of, strong, intelligent, scared and yet fearless; a true seeker of knowledge, with Dunworthy and Dr. Ahrens making formidable allies. As both Kivrin and Dunworthy battle through their respective timelines, will they both survive? And can Dunworthy bring his student back alive?

Doomsday Book has seen many years on my shelf and so many of my book blogging friends have entreated me to read this book and I wish I had listened to them earlier. It’s a magnificent story, far superior to so many time-traveling books and films I’ve seen over the years. I wish they’d make a live action adaptation of this but I fear they would spoil it. And boy am I glad Willis has written more novels in her Oxford Time Travel series. Who amongst us hasn’t wondered whether what we read in history books or watch in documentaries even come close to how life was really like in the past? Imagine studying history, really studying history by actually traveling to the past.

I’m off to read To Say Nothing of the Dog and Blackout/All Clear next.

I read this as part of R.I.P. IX.

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Theft of Life

Imogen Robertson’s fifth volume in her historical mysteries featuring Mrs. Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther is probably her darkest yet. Theft of Life begins with the transplanting of Harriet and her children to Berkeley Square where their friends, Owen Graves and his wards, the Earl of Sussex, Jonathan, his sister Susan and their half-brother Eustache, are currently residing due to the children’s education. Crowther is also in London to present his new work on anatomy and Harriet has followed him to avoid her sister’s attempts at finding a suitable second husband for her.

No sooner are they settled in when Harriet’s senior footman, William, is witness to a body found near St. Paul’s, tied, stretched out and wearing a metal mask only a former slave would recognise. Shaken, William is reluctant to admit to the authorities the identity of the dead man, a notorious slave owner from the West Indies. And so Harriet and Crowther are called to examine the corpse, identified by William as a Mr. Trimnell, and are drawn into the dark, violent world of slavery that has bolstered and financed British trade, especially that of sugar.

Stories of slavery run by the British are few and far between. We are more familiar with films and books built on testaments of American slaves and I admire Robertson for tackling such a difficult subject head on. She reserves no punches and does not wallow in sentimentality. It’s brutal, horrific and tragic and she has drawn on historical sources to craft a story that is a vivid reminder of the hypocrisy of respectability. Set before the abolition of slavery in Britain, Robertson uses the testaments and stories of the free slaves, who have managed to carve out an independent life in England but who still retain the fear and nightmares from their past, and those who endeavoured to help them.

As Crowther and Harriet begin their investigation into Trimnell’s death which at first points to a former slave intent on revenge, Eustache is caught stealing a book and is sent to work off his punishment at Hinckley’s Bookshop run by Francis Glass, a free black man. When Francis’ beloved, Eliza Smith, dies in a suspicious fire in her bookshop one night, he is convinced that there was foul play. He had seen a wound in her eye and her body was cold to the touch before he was dragged away by the local constable and the shop collapsed. The social world which the rich and powerful inhabit in London is a small one and those with connections to the slave trade will at one time or another all congregate at the Jamaica Coffee House. And soon the two disparate events collide as Crowther, Harriet and Francis Glass begin to realise that what they are up against is a group of powerful people who will do anything to keep the status quo and, more importantly, their past evils buried and forgotten.

In Theft of Life, Robertson has once again crafted a gripping historical thriller, dark, pacey and heartbreaking. One of the things I like about Crowther and Harriet’s partnership is that it is based on mutual understanding and respect which has, gradually over time, turned into a deep friendship. The lack of sentimentality and easy romance which can be prevalent in this genre, and one which I admit I sometimes hanker after, is refreshingly missing here. I cannot wait for the next one in the series.

Previous novels in the series:
Instruments of Darkness
Anatomy of Murder
Island of Bones
Circle of Shadows

I read this as part of R.I.P. IX.

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