Review: AGENT 6 by Tom Rob Smith

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.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I have reviewed CHILD 44 and THE SECRET SPEECH

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 3/5
Narrator Gareth Armstrong
Publisher Simon & Schuster UK [2011]
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
Creative Commons Licence
This work by http://reactionstoreading.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, book review, Russia, Tom Rob Smith, USA. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Review: AGENT 6 by Tom Rob Smith

  1. Bernadette – A thoughtful and very well-written review! Thank you. I think one thing your review gets at is how much more powerful a book can be if the plot concentrates on character development and plot rather than trying to express messages. Not that one can’t do both (all three?) but books just resonate better and have a better focus if they prioritise the character and plot.

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  2. Sarah says:

    I didn’t finish Child 44. I’m not sure what it was about the book, I just found in slightly depressing so I put it down and never picked it back up again. I have heard good things about Agent 6 so mabe I should try again!

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    • If you stopped reading CHILD 44 because it was depressing I would not recommend AGENT 6, it’s at least equally as depressing if not more so and without the hopeful redemption theme of CHILD 44. Well that’s my thoughts anyway – I am mainly glad I read it because it means I don’t feel quite so bad about the whole trilogy as I would have if I’d left my reading at the second book which I thought pretty stupid all around.

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  3. Maxine says:

    Yes, a very thoughtful review. Child 44 is another book that was on my shelf (purchased) for a couple of years but went off to the charity shop unread, I just could not face the theme. I had heard that his next one was a disappointment. Good to read he is back on form for the third. However, I wonder, from what you write, if the author is striving too much in the second two books to make a story where there isn’t one? It sounds as if the first book was a very strong narrative (not just from your review, but from many others). Perhaps he should have left that and gone off to write something different, instead of taking up this “dotting round in time” approach? I shouldn’t pontificate, though, sorry – as I haven’t read any of them.

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    • You are allowed an opinion Maxine even if you haven’t read the books – and I agree I don’t think there was enough content for a trilogy. I rarely have any interest in talking to authors about their books but if I got the chance I would like to ask Smith if he had planned a trilogy all along or if he was pressured into it after the enormous success of CHILD 44. That first book was so different in my view and I have heard him talk about the idea that prompted that book (the real world case of a killer being active in Soviet Russian but authorities refusing to investigate because such things did not happen under communism) – whereas there does not seem to have been anything in particular to centre the other two books around. Though he could have made more of this third one if he’d concentrated more on the Jesse Austin story….again it seems to me that Afghanistan got shoe horned in for no real reason.

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  4. I have to admit that though I thought Child 44 was a great read, its denouement disappointed me so much I was not tempted with the second in this series and then saw that it did not receive the fanfare of the first. Makes me one of your ‘leave it theres’.

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    • A wise move indeed Rhian. Oh and I agree the ending of CHILD 44 was disappointing, not sure why I didn’t listen to others when it came to SECRET SPEECH – but you live and learn I guess 🙂

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  5. Kathy D. says:

    I think this is a do not read, not my speed. Am besotted now with Michael Connelly’s The Drop before I venture to Oz.
    All I relate to here is the mention of Paul Robeson. I grew up hearing his singing, and I have my family’s one record, which I can’t listen to without weeping from the beauty of his voice.

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  6. JoV says:

    I am a great fan of Child 44 but after all the -ve reviews I couldn’t put myself through Secret Speech, perhaps I should read that and then get to Agent 6 and finish up the trilogy. Thanks for the review.

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  7. Kathy D. says:

    FYI: If you’re still looking for Irish women writers, Declan Burke has write-ups about several at his website Crime Always Pays. Included are posts about writers of historical crime fiction. Fascinating stuff.

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  8. Mick says:

    I’ve seen some pretty mixed reviews on this book, and I have really enjoyed this review, I think I will try it and see for myself, you can go listen to the online audio book review on Book Report here – http://www.bookreportradio.com

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