AGENT 6 is the somewhat epic conclusion to Tom Rob Smith’s trilogy featuring MGB agent turned human being Leo Demidov. It takes readers from 1950 to 1980 and from Russia to America to Afghanistan in something that feels less like a thriller than it does a haphazard tour through the lowlights of Soviet-era history. As the book opens we’re in 1950 which is earlier than the action in the first two books and we see Leo at the height of his powers as a security agent who very much believes in the value of his role to the country he loves. He has been assigned a new agent to mentor and there are chilling scenes in which Leo teaches his protegé what to look for in a person’s diary in order to discern how much harm that person could potentially be to the State (the premise being that no one with a diary could be entirely harmless). Leo is also asked to assist with arrangements for the visit to Russia of American singer Jesse Austin (loosely modelled on Paul Robeson), one of the few western artists permitted to visit the country and only because of his professed belief in and support for communism. The visit provides an opportunity for Leo to properly meet Raisa, a woman he spoke to briefly on the train one day and the person who will become his wife.
This action ends rather abruptly and we jump forward 15 years to the period following Leo’s downfall and departure from government service (all of which is covered in the other two books in the set, CHILD 44 and THE SECRET SPEECH). Leo is disillusioned but seems happy enough; his loss of faith in the communist state is made up for by having his family around him. However that family, his wife Raisa and adopted daughters Elena and Zoya, are soon off on a state-sponsored trip to New York where the girls are to be part of a joint choir with American children at the United Nations. Many of the reviews and synopses I’ve seen describe subsequent events to this but I think that spoils things so shall stop here, except to say that members of the Russian delegation get in touch with their supporter Jesse Austin and the trip does not end as expected.
I almost didn’t bother reading this book after the disappointment which was its predecessor but I had an urge to complete the trilogy and did wonder if Smith had managed to recreate any of the magic of his first book, CHILD 44, which I can still remember passages from three years after reading it. In the end I am glad I read AGENT 6 because it washed away the distaste left behind by the ludicrous second novel, even if it didn’t manage to achieve the particular magic of that first novel.
The biggest difference between CHILD 44 and the subsequent books is that CHILD 44 essentially told a single, coherent story and almost as a by-product of that demonstrated broader points about the awfulness of a totalitarian regime, the lengths people will go to when they are pushed too far and the misery that can accompany seriously having to question one’s long-held beliefs. The story itself is quite intimate and allows the reader to be drawn into Leo’s world and develop a sense of the changes he is experiencing. The remaining books in the trilogy largely lacked this layer of narrative and so, for me, the power of exploring the broader issues was dissipated as we jumped hither and thither through Soviet history without any real focus. In AGENT 6 though there is an echo of the first book’s intimacy in the thread that depicts the life of Jesse Austin and his fall from grace, orchestrated by an unforgiving government. Austin’s dignity and his wife’s steadfast support of her husband and refusal to be bitter about all they lose were heart-achingly sad, especially when juxtaposed with the mean-spirited and cynical people attempting to use the Austin’s on both sides of the America versus communism fight.
For me the rest of the book is less successful, being too disjointed and broad to be fully engaging. The large chunk that takes place in Afghanistan, where Leo is forced once again to work for the State, though this time with his eyes open, was too long-winded. It felt to me like the author was trying way too hard to highlight the parallels between the Soviet attempt to conquer the country and the current war being fought there by America and its allies. This section of the book did introduce someone who should have been a compelling and sympathetic character but she didn’t quite work for me and in the end I don’t think she or the entire section added much to this book or the trilogy overall.
Like most readers I’m sure I spent most of the book wondering when the eponymous agent 6 would appear and then being quite disappointed when it finally happened but at least the ending of this book had less of a Hollywood feel than its predecessors. I do think Smith is a talented writer and even though I don’t think the ambition of this trilogy was evenly successful I’m glad to have read it and met some of the beautifully drawn characters. If you have read the other two books in the series I would definitely recommend you complete the picture with this one but if you’ve yet to start I’d just read CHILD 44 and leave it there.
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My rating 3/5
Narrator Gareth Armstrong
Publisher Simon & Schuster UK 
ASIN B005KTRZHC (downloaded from audible.com)
Length 13 hours 33 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #3 of Leo Demidov trilogy
Source I bought it
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