Four years ago, "Child 44," Tom Rob Smith's debut thriller set in Stalinist Russia, was a literary sensation.
An edgy, intense portrait of Russia's secret police and the lengths they would go to to protect their country's image as a crime-free society, "Child 44" managed to straddle a fine line between well-researched, absorbing historical fiction and propulsive thriller that would earn the book universal praise, sales of more than 1.5 million copies worldwide and a place on the Man Booker Prize's longlist (unusual recognition for a work of genre fiction).
"Child 44" introduced 30-year-old Leo Demidov, a fanatically loyal agent with the MGB, the Soviet secret agency that was a precursor to the KGB, and his wife, Raisa, a beautiful schoolteacher. One pleasure of reading that book and the follow-up, "The Secret Speech" — set amid the turmoil after Stalin's death — was witnessing Leo's transformation from tool of the state into a man who fiercely loves and values his wife and family.
Now comes "Agent 6," the final installment in what Smith had reportedly always planned as a trilogy. Stepping outside the Soviet bloc for the first time, "Agent 6" is Smith's most ambitious book, covering some 30 years and the USSR's engagement with "The Main Adversary" during the Cold War and its disastrous misadventures in Afghanistan with rebel fighters.
Smith takes us, in a prologue, to the early years of Leo's career, 1950, as Leo and a young colleague he is training investigate an artist commissioned to paint a series of public murals in Moscow. Reading the artist's diary, which was hidden in a fireplace, Leo is looking for hints of subversive thought, only to discover a young woman who muses about "how love begins" and inexplicably draws the Statue of Liberty. Though the trainee is smitten with the artist, Leo doesn't trust the artist's thoughts or his trainee's judgment. "Love had made him fallible," Leo thinks coldheartedly. It is also an ominous foreshadowing.
Fast forward to 1965 and to another secret diary: Leo has given up police work to manage a small factory, and Raisa has risen within her field to become a leading educator. Their adopted daughters, Zoya and Elena, have come to love and trust Leo, so when he finds a diary hidden under Elena's mattress and reads, "For the first time in my life I feel the need to keep a record of my thoughts," he goes against his secret-police instincts and, after consultation with his wife, decides to read no further.
This time, however, reading further might have been the right thing to do: It might have alerted Leo to a conspiracy and spared his family from a tragedy that occurs while his wife and daughters are in America as part of an international student peace tour. It might have also spared Leo from an obsessive need to investigate what happened while they were abroad.
The strengths Smith exhibited in the trilogy's other two books, especially the intertwining of Russian political intrigue with one man's redemption, feel here like little more than an excuse for Leo taking 15 years to snap out of a drug-addled depression and solve a crime that has shattered his family and his own sanity. When Leo finally gets the chance, enabled by his defection to the U.S. after a disastrous mission in Afghanistan, what he finds on our soil seems to be not worthy of the effort.
It's an anticlimactic conclusion because there are other things to admire in "Agent 6" as well as Smith's work across the series, notably a remarkable skill in knitting together world and personal histories, particularly that of "Agent 6's" Jesse Austin, a black singer, political activist and communist sympathizer modeled after real-life actor/activist Paul Robeson. In his portrayal of Austin, Smith dramatizes little-known facts of the FBI's harassment of Robeson and his family that give a chilling verisimilitude to the actions of an FBI agent hellbent on destroying a perceived threat to his country.
And yet, beneath the history and intermittent thrills offered in "Agent 6" and more successfully in the other two books, Smith's exploration of love — from young Leo's zealous love of country at all costs to the love of a mature man who has given up his country, career and almost his humanity save one last reunion with his family — is perhaps the novel's most haunting element. "Agent 6" leaves the reader wondering how love begins and, too sadly, how it ends.
Woods is the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.