It is much too early in the year to even begin discussing such things, but I am confident that AGENT 6 will be on several “Best of the Year” lists. The concluding volume of a trilogy that includes the haunting CHILD 44 and the unforgettable THE SECRET SPEECH, it continues Tom Rob Smith’s penchant for exhaustive detail and claustrophobic atmosphere.
"It is much too early in the year to even begin discussing such things, but I am confident that AGENT 6 will be on several 'Best of the Year' lists."
Leo Demidov’s career as a Moscow secret policeman shapes and informs the events that take place, even as he makes a life for himself outside of the law enforcement arena. AGENT 6 begins in 1950, telling the story of how Demidov first met his beloved wife, Raisa. The narrative continues through 1965, when Demidov, who has become a respected manager of a small factory, loses everything he holds dear in the space of a heartbeat. Grieving and seeking revenge, he is prevented by the Communist state from investigating the cause of the tragedy or the impetus behind it. But he is not one to be denied, as those familiar with CHILD 44 and THE SECRET SPEECH know all too well. Over the course of the next 15 years, Demidov relentlessly follows a complex and tortuous path, one that takes him from Russia to the war-torn mountains of Afghanistan and finally to New York.
Along the way, the author captures the mood and the era scrupulously against several different backdrops. One knows, almost from the beginning of the book, that things are not going to end well, as the Soviet Union passes from the terrifying and murderous rule of Josef Stalin through Leonid Brezhnev’s rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Soviet ship of state as he steered it resolutely into the economic iceberg that had been its destiny from the beginning. Demidov is older and exhausted, yet more resolute than ever, while at the same time he is arguably more flawed. As with the best literature, the “current” events of AGENT 6 are tied to the acts of the past, erroneous and otherwise. And while the actions of Demidov’s past contribute to the tragedies of his present, they also enable him to achieve a draw of sorts at the book’s conclusion, however bittersweet it may be.
What is undeniable here is that Smith has emerged from the publication of the final volume of his trilogy as a major and masterful literary talent who is capable of infusing even the most offhand scene or sentence with foreboding, relieved only occasionally with a grim but sharp humor. His ability not only to transform his research into an irresistible and compelling narrative but also to capture the atmosphere of the times and places of which he writes is made more astounding by his relative youth (he is in his early 30s). What he describes in AGENT 6 is not unlike the stories I heard from Stalin-era babooshkas when I lived in San Francisco in the 1970s. Smith’s wordcraft makes the stories even more memorable and, yes, more horrific.
Where will Smith go from here? I’m hoping for more, as there is something in his work that appears to indicate that as grand as his accomplishments have been thus far, his best books are yet to come. For the immediate future, though, there is AGENT 6, to be savored and re-read.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 6, 2012