December 13, 2011

A wrenching conclusion to a Soviet trilogy

By Tom Rob Smith
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Surprise may be the last thing readers expect from the third book in a trilogy. Then again, when a trilogy is as unpredictable and riveting as Tom Rob Smith's Child 44 series, set as it is both in the harsh Russian landscape and the dense thicket of the human soul, expectations quickly evaporate in a page-turning frenzy.

Agent 6 sends former Soviet secret police agent Leo Demidov forward in time to 1965. It's been 13 years since he stalked a serial killer in Child 44 and a decade since he saved one of his two adopted daughters from a vicious female gang leader in The Secret Speech. Having reached an uneasy truce with his horrific past, Leo and wife Raisa strive to be good Moscow parents and model citizens as they walk a narrow political line in post-Stalinist Russia.

Their new normal comes suddenly unglued, however, when Leo's wife and daughters depart for New York on a youth "Peace Tour" designed to foster relations with their Cold War enemies. Since Leo is not allowed to leave the country, he can only wait and worry—for good reason, it turns out. Something does go terribly wrong on the tour, so wrong that it will take Leo the rest of his life to come to terms with it.

Driven to find out what happened in New York, trying every trick in his extensive arsenal to escape to the West and hunt down the answers, Leo eventually accepts a suicide mission to train a new Soviet-style secret service in Afghanistan in the 1980s. When this opium-fueled self-exile ultimately presents him with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Leo fights his way to New York, only to find that the answers he seeks pose a moral dilemma unlike any he's ever encountered.

Smith, a young British screenwriter turned best-selling novelist, has created in Leo Demidov a Kafkaesque modern hero for our times, a good man trapped in a corrupt, manipulative system, forced to choose between loyalties to family, country and conscience. With a cinematographer's eye for settings and historical detail, Smith uses Leo's journey to examine larger issues, especially the political, social and religious systems that both unite and divide us.

Like the previous novels, there are moments in Agent 6 that seem to burn on the page with Leo's heartbreak and longing. That's a most generous return for our emotional investment into this troubled, fascinating Everyman, and one readers will look forward to in whatever comes next from his gifted young creator.

Author Tom Rob Smith goes Behind the Book with Agent 6.

Read an interview with Smith about Child 44.

Read a review of The Secret Speech.

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Agent 6

Agent 6

By Tom Rob Smith
Grand Central
ISBN 9780446550765

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