Tom Rob Smith originally swept me away with his fast-paced, twisted Stalin-era thriller called "Child 44" (one of the first reviews I ever wrote - ha!). The story featured a loyal but good-hearted MGB Agent named Leo Demidov who investigates a series of grisly child murders. This was a anti-hero I could get behind.
So I then listened to the second installment of the series called "The Secret Speech", also featuring Leo. Frankly, it is hard for me to remember much about the book because it was pretty fragmented and ultimately was a disappointing follow-up. But I was willing to give it another go with "Agent 6". I liked Leo and wanted to see what had become of him.
Synopsis: We have advanced to 1965 where Leo is no longer in the employ of the MGB, but a manager of a small factory. Still, the investigator in him will always be in his blood, and when his wife and two nearly-grown adopted daughters are invited as part of a goodwill tour to New York City, he becomes skeptical. Because he is not allowed to accompany them, he sits in Moscow, helpless to intervene what will become a political conspiracy that will devastate his life forever.
Years pass, and he continues his obsession with getting at the truth of what actually happened with his wife and girls. He accepts a position in Soviet-controlled Afghanistan, with the goal of eventually finding a way to get to New York City.
The author covers miles of ground, from the days when Leo met his wife in 1950, to the assassination of a black American singer and sympathizer of Communism in 1965 (modeled after real-life actor and activist Paul Robeson), to the twisted conspiracy led by a brutal FBI agent, to Leo's drug-induced fog in Afghanistan. All of this slowly building to a grand denouement of the three-book trilogy.
My thoughts: This was quite an ambitious effort for Mr. Smith. The story spanned decades, encompassed multiple countries and political regimes. Because I like Leo (sort of in the same way I like Harry Hole or Jack Reacher, with all their frailties), I happily plodded after him in this novel and was very much entertained by all the bizarre adventures.
But the fragmentation that I witnessed in "The Secret Speech" continued here. More than once I stopped listening and vaguely wondered, "I wonder if Leo ever WILL get to the US" and "I wonder if we ever WILL find out what happened over there in 1965". Which was unnerving to me. Normally I trust an author to deliver, but the plot was so erratic and wandering, I worried that I was going to be left for dead out in an Afghan cave, with resolutions to nothing!
I guess I shouldn't have worried, because Smith brought things around, and finalized his trilogy in a way that was satisfying. I asked myself if I should have taken a more open-minded approach to the book, considering it more of an epic tale than a specific, honed story. Like Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago. Because he was ALL OVER THE PLACE. This was probably confusing to me because "Child 44" was so tight and laser sharp, and very much unlike the last two books in the series.
I was also somewhat disappointed with the mystery, if you will. Who was Agent 6? (Again I wondered if I would ever find out, or if I'd missed something.) Who was behind all the treachery and conspiracy? The answer seemed pretty obvious to me, so obvious that I figured I was going to have a twist thrown at me in the end. Not so. It was all right there from the beginning.
Throw all of these musings into the wine press, and I guess the result would be this. If you like reading about the progression of Russian politics over the years, of agents and conspiracies and epic tales that take you in unexpected directions, you will most likely enjoy this one. I would recommend, however, that you read the first two books in the series to better understand and appreciate Leo.
A few words about the audio production: I was pleased that the same narrator was retained for all three novels. Dennis Boutsikaris does a phenomenal job in all of them, with his sarcastic Russian accent. He made the trilogy quite a listening pleasure.
Audio book length: 13 hours and 15 minutes (480 pages)
3.5 out of 5 stars