A review of Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
The third book in a trilogy, Agent 6 concludes the story of Leo Demidov, a hero in the Great Patriotic War (as the USSR termed World War II) and later an agent in Stalin’s secret police. By way of introduction, the book opens in 1950 with Leo in thrall to the Sovet State, a senior officer in the MGB (predecessor to the KGB and to today’s FSB) charged with training newly recruited agents. Jesse Austin, a world-famous African-American singer closely resembling Paul Robeson, is visiting Moscow, where he will perform and publicly extol the accomplishments of the Soviet regime as he sees them. Leo is detailed to help ensure that Austin is shielded from the realities of life in Moscow. In the course of this challenging assignment, Leo comes into close contact with Raisa, a beautiful and brilliant young teacher with whom he has been infatuated from afar.
The scene shifts abruptly to 1965, with Leo and Raisa married and living in poverty with their two adopted daughters (minor characters earlier in the trilogy). Raisa has persuaded Leo to leave the secret police. Meanwhile, she has risen far in the Ministry of Education and has been named to head a peace delegation to the USA — a student group in which she insists including her daughters. With great misgiving, Leo agrees not to stand in the way of their leaving for New York.
There, in New York, still in 1965, a tragic series of events involving Raisa, her younger daughter, Elena, Jesse Austin, and a senior FBI agent named Jim Yates swiftly unfold. Leo is unhinged by the tragedy and devotes his life to unraveling the mystery behind it.
Again the scene shifts. It’s 1973, and Leo has just failed again in his frantic attempts to leave the Soviet Union and make his way to New York to investigate the mystery. Seven years later, in 1980, we find him in Kabul, where he had been given a dangerous assignment as punishment for attempting to flee the Soviet Union. He is now the longest-surviving Soviet “advisor” to Afghanistan’s Communist Party, training the new Communist regime’s secret police. Here, in the shadow of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ferocious resistance by the mujahedeen, Leo becomes embroiled in a series of violent and troubling experiences that eventually make it possible for him to travel to New York at last.
In the concluding scenes of this extraordinarily compelling novel, we find Leo in New York, scrambling to unlock the mystery that has bedeviled him for a decade and a half.
Agent 6 is the conclusion of Tom Rob Smith’s Leo Demidov trilogy, which began three years ago with Child 44, his debut novel. Child 44 was an instant success, both critically and commercially, and won numerous awards both as a thriller and as a work of literature. It was followed in 2009 by The Secret Speech. All three books are brilliant, and all can be read without reference to the others.
Tom Rob Smith is a young, Cambridge-educated British writer, son of a Swedish mother and an English father. It’s difficult to understand how he could have acquired such a fine sensibility about life in Stalinist Russia, let alone in Afghanistan under Soviet occupation. Smith was born in the year the USSR invaded Afghanistan, a quarter-century after Stalin’s death. Yet Agent 6 rings true throughout.