One of the most exciting challenges in writing a trilogy of novels is trying to create connections that go beyond having a set of characters return. Of course, there are no rules to writing, but it strikes me that if you’re going to stipulate that there are three books rather than an undefined number, you need to make creative use of that decision.
As someone who enjoys wandering around old churches, whether in England or on my research trips to Russia, I’ve seen lots of triptych paintings. The form offers a way of presenting three images that can be viewed in any order, images which exist in their own right but which are at their most powerful when considered together.
The number three has powerful signals for any writer—suggesting a three-act structure, implying that the books are telling an over-arching story that will come to a satisfying conclusion. But a trilogy is not one enormous novel being split into three parts. The reader must be taken on a journey during each individual novel. Furthermore, since many readers will come to the novels in a different order, readers should be allowed to build the experience in their own way. It must be as fascinating for a reader to construct their relationship to the novels by starting at the end as it is for a reader who has followed them from the beginning.
In the broadest sense, my three novels not only tell the history of the main character Leo Demidov, they tell the story of the Soviet regime, beginning with the Stalinist paranoia and fear, followed by the moral confusion that followed the dictator’s death, which is at the center of my second book, The Secret Speech, and ultimately ending with Agent 6 and the depiction of an empire in decay, expressed through the occupation and invasion of Afghanistan.
Yet beyond historical and biographical chronology, the books within a fiction trilogy must reflect upon each other in some way. With Child 44, I wanted to use the criminal investigation to explore the society in which the crimes took place—not to concentrate on the forensic, or procedural, but to look at the way in which Communist Russia tried to claim there was no crime in its Utopian society at a time when a series of terrible murders were taking place. In a sense, it was about a reaction to the crimes, rather than crimes. It was about one man fighting against a political system that refused to allow him access to the truth.
With Agent 6 I mirrored this approach, fascinated by the emotional impact of a brilliant and determined detective trying to solve the murder of someone he loves, in a time when geopolitics make it entirely impossible to reach the crime scene. How do you live with knowing that the investigation has been nothing more than a cover-up—and being unable to petition those responsible, unable even to set foot in the country where the crime took place? Once again detective Leo Demidov comes up against political obstacles in his attempt to solve the most important case in his life.
Going further, I used the structural device of echoes and parallels across the three books to take very different angles on similar ideas. In Child 44 Leo Demidov is an officer of the MGB, part of the secret police apparatus. Leo witnesses the brutality of the secret police, he is part of its brutality and he turns his back on it. In Agent 6, he is sent as a Soviet advisor to Afghanistan, where he is ordered to help create an Afghan secret police. He watches with dismay and despair as a young idealistic Afghan woman makes the same mistakes he did, becoming a State Security officer in order, she believes, to build a better country. It was fascinating to reverse the relationship that I created in Child 44.
In similar fashion, the combination of characteristics that Leo embodies as a young man seen in Child 44 are found in the American Communist Jesse Austin, a character based on the singer and athlete Paul Robeson, in Agent 6. The two are a curious pair, similar on many levels, both passionate believers, yet whereas Leo’s idealism cracks, Austin’s remains unbreakable even when his career and wealth are taken from him, even when confronted with the awful truth of the Soviet regime.
So, with the trilogy at a close, I hope I’ve created three books that not only stand on their own but also dance with each other.
After graduating from Cambridge, Tom Rob Smith spent time as a TV screenwriter before publishing his best-selling debut novel, Child 44, in 2008. In Agent 6, Smith’s Russian hero Leo Demidov takes on his most personal case yet—one that takes nearly 20 years to solve.
Read a review of Agent 6.