I almost gave up early on Agent 6, the new novel by author Tom Rob Smith, and the third in his trilogy featuring Russian KGB agent Leo Demidov. Smith's first two Demidov books, Child 44 and The Secret Speech, were epic historical thrillers. Child 44 introduces Leo in the midst of Stalin's Soviet Union in the mid-1950s. Agent Demidov hunts down a serial killer, who simply cannot exist. Suggesting that a murderer is present in the Soviet "paradise" is a crime against the state.
The Secret Speech advances the timeline to 1956, when Kruschev takes over for Stalin and issues a speech repudiating the dead dictator, calling him a tyrant and promising the USSR will change. The book takes Leo on a journey, from Moscow to a gulag in Siberia where there seems to be no escape, to the front line of the Hungarian uprising in Budapest. The second Leo novel is an epic adventure across the expanse of Soviet Russia.
So, needless to say, I was eagerly awaiting Agent 6, which finally came out a week or two ago. I tore into it the second I got it and was quickly disappointed.
Agent 6 skips ahead to 1965 and Leo--save for a flashback introduction--is barely in the first half or the book. The story revolves around his wife, Raisa, and their adopted daughters Zoya and Elenya, who are sent to New York City as part of a concert tour involving both Russian and American children. But the tour is just a pretext for a Soviet plot to discredit a famed African American--and Communist sympathiser--singer, Jesse Austin. To say anymore about the story will give away too much, so I'll stop there.
But both Leo--and the author, Tom Rob Smith--redeem themselves in the second half of the book, where Demidov is in 1980s Afghanistan, as a Soviet adviser during the ill-fated Russian invasion of that country. That part of the book has eerie echoes to the present-day United States involvement in that black hole of the world, a place where no foreign country will ever succeed. It's the combination of geography, climate, and people that make it the bleakest place on the planet, I think.
Leo, a broken man, addicted to opium, finds redemption in this hell hole and the latter part of the book takes him to New York City, to solve the mysteries created there in 1965. It's an emotional journey, one that ends--at least for me--in a less than satisfying final chapter that had me crying like a baby, but still left me somehow wanting more. But I guess that's the sign of a great character in a good novel...you always want the story to continue
I have high hopes that this is not the end of Leo Demidov, but by the early 1980s of the final chapters of Agent 6, he must be at least in his 60s. I think the one thing slightly wrong with this book (which for me did a 180-degree turn once Leo reappeared in Aghanistan) is that the success of the first two books depends on Leo being in Russia. Those books have such an epic feel to them, such an incredible glimpse into history--and an almost-secret history, to boot. I feel Agent 6 robs us a bit by taking Leo away from Mother Russia, a country that means so much to him. But I also feel that there is one more novel to write about Leo, about where he is and what happens to him and his family when the Berlin Wall falls in 1989 and the USSR ceases to exist. I hope Smith will tell us that story, but in the meantime, the three Leo Demidov novels that we already have tell an amazing tale.