Agent 6

Posted: October 2, 2015 in Book reviews
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By Tom Rob Smith

agent6

And so we come to the final book in the trilogy of novels featuring Soviet era detective Leo Demidov. I’ve already reviewed Child 44 and The Secret Speech, so while I’ll try to keep spoilers for Agent 6 to a minimum spoilers for the first two books may appear.

The book begins with a flashback to 1950, when Leo was a relatively new agent of the MGB (forerunner to the KGB). The flashback details the first blossoming of romance between Leo and Raisa, the women who’ll become his wife (although romance probably isn’t the right word seeing as one party is quite rightly afraid of the other) as well as introducing the character of Jesse Austin, a black American singer and communist who is visiting the USSR. Leo is one of the agents tasked with ensuring Jesse’s trip goes smoothly (i.e. he gets a sanitised version of life under Stalin).

The story fast-forwards to 1965, where Leo, Raisa and their adopted daughters Zoya and Elena are living a happy, if frugal life in a cramped apartment. Leo’s days as an agent, and the perks that came with it, are long gone and now he manages a factory. Raisa is still a teacher, and has been instrumental in organising a concert in New York that will feature Russian and American children singing together. She and her daughters will be taking part, but Leo is not allowed to go with them. He expresses concerns but still Raisa and the girls go.

In New York however Raisa quickly begins to worry that the concert is being used as a cover for something untoward. Her fears are justified when tragedy strikes, leaving Leo heartbroken and impotent, thousands of miles away. Unable to travel to New York to investigate the crime Leo falls into despair, eventually winding up part of the Soviet occupation force in Afghanistan 15 years later, but finally he may get a chance at redemption, and a chance to find out what really happened in 1965, but that will mean tracking down the mysterious Agent 6…
As you can tell from reading my reviews of the previous two books I loved Child 44, and thought The Secret Speech was generally ok, but nowhere near as good. Sadly the law of diminishing returns kicks in because Agent 6 is the weakest of the three. I wonder if Smith ever envisaged a trilogy or was railroaded into one when Child 44 was such a massive hit. It certainly feels that way.

There are some interesting ideas jammed into Agent 6, but they’re unconnected and are linked only by the most tenuous and contrived of ways.

The first third is good, or at least interesting. Jesse Austin (loosely modelled on Paul Robeson) is an intriguing character, especially in regard to his fall from grace to end up poverty stricken in Harlem in 1965, his downfall engineered in large part by the FBI, here represented most notably by nasty FBI agent Yates. The similarities between Yates and the man Leo used to be are striking, both men undertake horrible acts because they believe it’s in the best interests of their country, and I think it was a smart move by Smith to shift the action to the US, especially during the period in question, because it gives him the opportunity to show that, for all its vaunted democracy, the American security services were just as capable of treating people like animals as their Soviet counterparts. Austin may not have ended up executed or shipped off to a gulag, but his exile into poverty is no less shameful.

The downsides to this opening section are twofold, firstly Leo is conspicuous by his absence, and secondly because the blurb on the back talks about tragedy the reader is just waiting for it to happen so the story can move on.

Sadly the book goes downhill from here. Events in New York leave Leo a broken man, but we get to see very little of this because the story skips forward to 1980 where we find Leo is now an opium addled Soviet advisor in Kabul.

The shift in tone, time and location is exceptionally jarring, and is made worse by the fact that the Leo we encounter bears scant resemblance to the man we’ve been following for two and a bit books. I’m sure Smith thought it was a good idea to utilise Afghanistan, but it feels like you’ve put one book down and picked up a different one written by a different author and featuring different characters and frankly this portion of the book is a chore to read and no amount of Mujahedeen fighters, helicopter gunships and treacherous mountain passes can make it appear anything beyond unnecessary filler.

The finale in New York does perk things up a bit, but that isn’t saying much. Smith has a habit of rushed finales and falling back on happy contrivances, and so it is that, with a few dozen pages to go, Leo learns of the existence of Agent 6 (in fact so do we, the phrase Agent 6 isn’t used until about 50 pages from the end) and discovers the limp and pretty obvious truth about what happened to Raisa.

Agent 6 isn’t the worst book I’ve ever read, but it’s a sad conclusion to a trilogy that began so strongly. I wish Smith had skipped the Afghanistan stuff and contrived to get Leo to New York in the 60s, the book would have been shorter, punchier and far more consistent. Alternatively it might have been better if Smith had written a book around Jesse Austin, then another book set in Afghanistan, neither of which would have needed to feature Leo, or even be connected to each other, but as it is it feels like he’s taken bits from different jigsaw puzzles and jammed them together simply because he was contractually obliged to write a third book and couldn’t decide which idea to use so settled on all of them!
He’s a good writer but can and does need to do better.

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Comments
  1. Hmm. I shall file it under ‘possibly’. I’ve been reading a lot of Charles Cumming’s spy novels lately but they don’t really hit the spot – somehow, they never feel as good as the stuff from the cold war era.

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