Smith, Tom Rob - 'Agent 6'
AGENT 6 is last in the trilogy of USSR thrillers by Tom Rob Smith (previous novels in the series being CHILD 44 and THE SECRET SPEECH), featuring sometime KGB agent Leo Demidov. The novel contains a terrifying opening sequence, where Demidov, showing the ropes to a younger, more softer hearted agent, demonstrates the most paranoid nuances of Stalinist-era thought crime when considering a personal diary. In those days any such diary would be automatically regarded as suspect, and even diary entries supportive of the regime could be considered subversive if deemed to not display the right level of sentiment, leaving the hapless diarist vulnerable to at best arrest and questioning, and at worst torture, imprisonment and death.
Shortly after the diary incident, and Demidov's first encounters with his future wife, he is then involved with preparations for a concert tour by famous US communist black singer Jesse Austin (whose background bears rather a resemblance to the singer Paul Robeson). Demidov has a nerve-wracking time with Austin, who wanting to see how real Soviet citizens live, is keen to make impromptu departures from the rigged itinerary set by Leo's bosses.
The action then moves forward fifteen years, from 1950 to 1965. Leo, after leaving the KGB for reasons of principle, is now a factory manager living with his family (wife Raisa and adoptive teenage daughters) in a modest cramped apartment. As he left the KGB he is under a permanent cloud of suspicion, so when Raisa and her daughters are invited to participate in a series of peace concerts at the UN headquarters in New York he is not permitted to go with them. Just before Raisa sets out, Leo discovers that his younger daughter, Elena, is keeping a secret diary, but decides not to invade her privacy by reading it.
We then follow events through the eyes of Raisa and her daughters in the US, where they are intrigued by the new experiences, and the unaccustomed luxury of a New York hotel. We see that Elena is being manipulated by her secret boyfriend, a rather obnoxious KGB propagandist accompanying the tour. Time has not been kind to Jesse Austin, who is now completely out of favour in the US, thanks to blacklisting at McCarthyism's height due to his politics, and lives in much reduced circumstances in a Harlem apartment. Both US and Soviet intelligence remain interested in Austin, and whether he might want to try to gain media support for the USSR by making a symbolic appearance at the concerts. Events at the concert involving Leo's family and Jesse Austin lead to an explosive and tragic conclusion, that both the US and Soviet government are keen to cover up.
Left reeling by events in New York, Leo fetches up at the end of the 1970s in Kabul, Afghanistan as an adviser to the communist regime and subsequently Soviet military post-invasion. He is forced to stay in post under threat of harm to himself and what remains of his family. On the surface Leo has adapted well to his new position, learning the local language, Dari, and training future Afghani secret police officers, including a hard working young Kabul woman, Nara. But his personal life is a shambles, as Leo is addicted to opium to dull his grief. When an army mission in the mountains of Afghanistan goes horribly wrong, this triggers a sequence of events that gives him the opportunity to find out what really happened in New York.
AGENT 6 is a well written, fast paced novel, with genuine thrills. The characterisation of Leo is very good, and well developed throughout the series as he becomes disillusioned by the repressive apparatus of the system he is part of, and is forced to challenge his core beliefs and actions. The New York sections, in particular the depiction of the Austin character and his difficulties in 50s America, and the reactions of the US intelligence services to the "Red" threat is very well done. The section of the novel set in Afghanistan, whilst engaging and interesting, does feel a little out of place, as it does not progress the plot greatly, and appears to function primarily as a device to manoeuvre Leo into the end sequence of the novel. Leo does seem to have a remarkable and possibly unrealistic level of insight as to the logistical difficulties and moral dilemmas posed by an invasion of Afghanistan. In contrast, the Moscow and New York sections of the book are far more compelling and convincing, and the ending, whilst left ambiguous to a degree is very touchingly done, although the eventual answer to the New York mystery does seem a little perfunctory, and divulged in a slightly rushed manner. Overall though, this is an entertaining, skilfully constructed historical thriller, more in the Olen Steinhauer/Philip Kerr mode than, as the sticker on the front of some editions suggests, for fans of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO or Jo Nesbo.
Laura Root, England