“Agent 6” Tom Rob Smith (Simon and Schuster) – book review

In the build-up to the Cold War, Leo Demidov, a KGB officer, is assigned to ‘babysit’ US singer Jesse Austin. The Soviets regard Jesse Austin’s outspoken admiration for Communism a huge propaganda coup and want his visit to Moscow to be a success. Leo has good reason to remember Jesse Austin with fondness as he meets his wife Raisa at the concert.

Fast forward to the mid-sixties, Leo and Raisa have two adopted daughters, Leo has left the KGB and Raisa is still a teacher. She snatches the opportunity to organise a students’ music concert with a choir and orchestra of both American and Soviet music students in New York, deliberately choosing politically neutral pieces for the  performance.

Meanwhile Jesse Austin has fallen on hard times. Harassed by the FBI, he found himself without a record deal, unable to book venues for concerts and forced to  move from a luxury lifestyle to a crumbling apartment block surrounded by the unemployed and neglected. Too proud to ask for help from the US Communist  Party, he releases records via subscription and lives on his wife’s waitress earnings. She’d stood by him and still regards herself as lucky to have him as a husband. Raisa and Leo’s daughters, Zoya the cynic, and Elena the idealistic dreamer, are part of the Soviet student delegation. As their students’ concert approaches, Leo  becomes instinctively suspicious and wants to warn his wife and daughters not to go but he’s equally aware of the huge opportunity – they may never get the chance to go abroad again – so merely warns Raisa to be careful. He waves them off to New York with a sense of foreboding.

His instincts were right. Elena’s become involved with a young KGB agent whose job is to maximise the public relations and publicity available to the Soviets. He hatches a plot to get Jesse Austin to come to the concert and speak outside the venue. Elena thinks it’s merely a publicity stunt. She slips out of the hotel and visits Jesse Austin, noticed by FBI Agent 6 as she does so. Her visit is photographed by a Soviet who’s now defected to the West but is actually a double agent, passing on information to whomever he feels offers the highest advantage at the time, not realising both sides are aware of his duplicity and use it to suit them. Elena persuades Jesse Austin to play his part and gets back to the hotel. Although she’s managed to slip past the security, she’s not managed to slip passed her watchful mother, who now knows something is wrong but not what. She questions the young KGB agent but gets no answers. She can’t call the concert off, although she tries to persuade Elena not to go, but relents and lets her attend.

The students’ concert itself is a success. Raisa notices Elena slip out and follows her. Both see Jesse Austin standing on a box giving a speech about Communism. Elena makes her way towards Jesse, gripping a Soviet flag in her hands, still believing the intention is to get a picture of her with Jesse and the flag in the media.  Raisa follows. Elena sees Anna Austin, Jesse’s wife watching her. Raisa doesn’t know of Anna’s presence and continues to follow her daughter. Suddenly, Jesse tumbles, fatally shot.

Elena and Raisa are separated bundled away by police for questioning. Loudly demanding to know where her daughter is, Raisa draws attention to her presence. Agent 6 is also present, keeping a close eye on proceedings and representing the FBI. The police have taken a statement from Anna Austin but failed to check her for a weapon. She draws a gun, shots are fired both Raisa and Anna are hit. Anna dies at the scene. Raisa dies later. Both daughters have to return to the Soviet Union without their mother.

Leo refuses to the believe the official story that Raisa and Jesse had an affair when he played his earlier concert in Moscow and that Raisa murdered him as a crime of passion when she realised he wouldn’t leave his wife. The Soviets agree the official version because it avoids any difficulties and smoothes a potentially awkward  situation. Leo vows he will avenge Raisa’s death and uncover the real version of events that night. He also blames himself for not teaching his daughters to be more suspicious and more aware of KGB agents who don’t give the full story and are prepared to manipulate and betray.

First, however, he has two grieving daughters to support. The young KGB agent is sent away and given a new identity so Leo can’t find and question him. Refused permission to travel to New York, Leo has to wait. But his KGB-trained mind is already collating news clippings and anything he thinks might be useful to a later investigation. When he daughters have grown up and moved away to start their adult lives, he attempts a defection but is caught and punished by being sent to Afghanistan as a special advisor, as the Soviets have invaded and plan a Communist state. Afghanistan sees Leo largely in limbo: he can’t attempt to defect again because of the fear of KGB retaliation against his daughters, but he can’t get any further in investigating Raisa’s death either. Until an opportunity presents itself when Leo is dragged into visiting an Afghan village, fired on by the Soviets in retaliation for attempted sabotage and the Soviets learn there was a child survivor who is being held up as a miracle and drafting Afghanis into the rebel’s cause. The Soviet army captain wants to kill the child. Leo sees a way of saving the child and  defecting. He finally gets his ticket to New York.

Up to this point, the pace has been finely judged, action taking place at a credible speed. Description has been spare but Tom Rob Smith can draw a complete picture by using a few well-chosen sentences. But once Leo transfers to New York, the narrative seems to run out of steam, as if the author was suddenly in a hurry to finish the book, although the plot is still intact.

Leo is drafted in as translator to help an academic trawl through FBI archives. A chance find puts him on the trail of Agent 6 and the truth about what happened that night. “Agent 6” is a perfect illustration of “it’s better to travel than arrive” and the ending feels like an anti-climax. However, it’s worth boarding for the journey, which Tom Rob Smith handles with skill.

It shows how seemingly mundane decisions taken on the spur of the moment for self-preservation can have devasting effects for others. Despite being a world away, Leo does not forget that his daughters are also still grieving for Raisa. And when his chance to finally avenge his wife’s death presents itself after a lengthy wait, Leo allows his daughters to guide his decision.

“Agent 6” is released in the UK in July 2011

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