Review of “Agent 6” by Tom Rob Smith

This book ends the trilogy featuring the Soviet agent Leo Demidov that began with Child 44 and continued in The Secret Speech. Whereas the first two books could be considered “thrillers,” this last one seems more of an effort to fit in everything the author still wants to say about the pre-dissolution USSR. Leo is almost a bit player in his own book, and in fact hardly appears at all in the first half.

It is now 1965, and Leo is living in a small apartment in Moscow with his wife Raisa and adopted daughters Elena and Zoya. His relationship to the State ebbed as his love for Raisa grew, because he did not want to incur Raisa’s contempt over his being affiliated with the unsavory activities of the secret police. He wanted to be good for her; she became his conscience, and she defined his identity now. As he said to her at one point, “The truth is I’ve never amounted to anything without you. Loving you is the only achievement I’ve ever been proud of.” Leo resigned from the KGB, making himself a political pariah, and got a job as manager of a small factory.

In contrast to (and in spite of) Leo’s fall from grace, Raisa has risen in the system, becoming increasingly prominent as an educator. She helped to plan and develop an “International Students Peace Tour” to New York, and she would be going along with her daughters, although Leo is not allowed to accompany them on their eight-day trip. He is nervous about it however, and with good reason. The Cold War was still raging, and the secret services of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were always jockeying to use any such occasion to their own advantage.

Smith now shifts the action to New York, and to a plot line that includes a thinly-veiled portrait of Paul Robeson, who appears in this book as Jesse Austin. The Jesse Austin plot line not only serves to move the main story forward, but gives Smith the opportunity to show that in the U.S. during the Cold War, the F.B.I. did not behave much better than its Soviet counterpart.

In New York, Raisa’s concert given by the school children and an appearance by Austin merge into a disaster marked by multiple betrayals, with peoples’ lives, including those of the Demidov family, no more than pawns on the Cold War chessboard. The horrific developments during the trip change all of their lives forever.

Most of the second half of the novel takes place fifteen years later, in 1980, and is set in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation there. We see that even away from the motherland, the vindictive habits of the brutal Soviet apparatus die hard. Moreover, the Afghans are no slouches in that department either. It is a harsh environment, and the lifespan of Soviets who serve there is short. The author does an admirable job of portraying both the Soviet and the Afghan situations, as well as the interests of the United States in exploiting them. It is related, but not really central to the story from the first half, so one can only surmise that this is what Smith wants us to know about the U.S.S.R. before he leaves this subject for his next book.

I found the ending melancholy, but ending a trilogy is a tricky business. You can opt to have your characters ride off into the sunset, or you can go for realism. Smith chose the latter.

Evaluation: Smith uses the cruel, merciless activities of the Soviet security apparatus as sharp relief for a story about love and trust and the risks and sacrifices that entails. You don’t have to have read the first two books of this series to read this one. If you’d like a fiction vehicle in order to learn more about life under the Soviets and how the recent wars in Afghanistan began, this is a good choice. (For those willing to read non-fiction, I recommend the brilliant 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner for general non-fiction by Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.)

Rating: 3.8/5

Published by Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2012

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19 Responses to Review of “Agent 6” by Tom Rob Smith

  1. Sandy says:

    I am in line for the audio of this one. I loved Child 44 but really did not like the Secret Speech at all. I’m invested in Leo though. I will definitely read this, but after reading your review, I’m wondering if it is going to be similar to his second book. Hmmm.

  2. BermudaOnion says:

    I love Child 44 but haven’t read The Secret Speech yet. My sister read Agent 6 without reading the first two and really liked it. I hope to give it a try one day.

  3. Barbara says:

    Remembering the Cold War years, I think I should read all three books. The only good thing about the Cold War was that we had a definite demon to blame for everything bad that happened. Now we blame everyone. 🙂 Seriously, it was a frightening time that I’m relieved is over.

  4. Steph says:

    I read Child 44 and I enjoyed it, but I also felt like it told enough of a story for me that I didn’t need to revisit the characters again. Maybe that was influenced by less-than impressed reactions I read about the sequel, so while I think Tom Rob Smith is a good writer and can certainly construct intriguing thrillers, I think I wish he would shake things up and do something with new characters!

  5. Glad to see this one is a standalone, but I think I’d like to read the whole series at some point.

  6. zibilee says:

    Sandy told me just the other day that Child 44 is totally worth reading, so I am adding the audio to my list. It sounds like even though the second installment wasn’t awesome, that this book sort of balances things out. I also love that it can be read as a standalone. Very interesting and thoughtful review today, Jill!

  7. John says:

    Good review. I like how the book shows the other side of the coin in America’s own secret service. Check out the Agent 6 trailer.

  8. Ti says:

    I wasn’t aware that Child 44 was part of a trilogy. Sometimes, I feel so out of the loop.

  9. Margot says:

    Those cold war years were scary and I’m not sure I want to relive them again. The book does sound compelling however.

  10. the old Soviet Empire will always make for good books

  11. I didn’t know Child 44 was part of a trilogy. I started it for book club but had a very hard time getting through it during the holidays (we started it around Thanksgiving) I think I’d like to go back to it. It should be even more interesting knowing there’s more story to come.

  12. Jenners says:

    This sounds really ambitious.

  13. Staci says:

    I picked up Child 44 for fifty cents on a library sale cart and now after reading your review I think my oldest may enjoy these more than me. I think I’ll mail him my copy! 😀

  14. Trish says:

    What?! I had no idea that this was a trilogy! I have Child 44 on my shelf–and actually started to listen to it but wasn’t feeling it at the time. Huh. Feel like I’ve just crawled out from under my rock!

  15. Julie P. says:

    Probably more geared towards Booking Pap Pap than me!

  16. stacybuckeye says:

    I want to read Child 44 and am even more intrigued that he ended the trilogy on a down note. I find that brave and usually more interesting.

  17. JoV says:

    I remember I told you about Child 44 and asked that you read it. You finished all the trilogy and I’m still stuck at Child 44. 🙂 Should I or should I not read Secret Speech and this one ? I was put off by reviews that says Secret Speech was full of gore and violence. is that true?

  18. Lizzy says:

    I heard the audio review on The Book Report (http://www.bookreportradio.com), but I’ve read some mixed reviews, not to sure if I its worth reading the whole series

  19. I can’t wait for the movies. Perhaps this is just Smith’s attempt to make it an even trilogy, rather than a duology. Studios are more likely to make a trilogy, for the continuing world, rather than just two books. Plus, seeing Leo in Afghanistan was fun, although too bad for him for having to go through shit again. Again, can’t wait for Tom Hardy to play Leo. Though he’s not like I imagined he would be.

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