Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith

30 March, 2015

Agent 6

From the perspective of the secret police concealing a diary was a crime regardless of its content. It was an attempt to separate a citizen’s public and private life, when no such gap existed.

And so we come to the concluding volume in Tom Rob Smith’s Soviet trilogy featuring ex-MGB operative Leo Demidov which began with Child 44 and continued in The Secret Speech. Agent 6 takes up the tale several years after The Secret Speech. It is 1965 and Raisa, now a headmistress and on the government’s education board has been given the task of taking a select group of pupils to the United States as a gesture of dialogue between the two conflicting countries. But she is under strict orders to maintain all proper guidelines as anything untoward will affect the world’s view of the USSR. Naturally Leo is unhappy with this, afraid that once Raisa and their daughters, who are accompanying her, leave Russia something will go wrong and he’ll never see them again. And even more so when he discovers his younger daughter Elena’s diary which has been secreted away in their flat. He has a bad feeling about all of this and his instincts are never wrong.

And so Leo is once again caught in history’s talons, his destiny controlled by others. When the trip to the States ends in catastrophe, Leo once again finds himself on the wrong side of the State but this time he is out for revenge. No matter what happens, he is determined to get to the bottom of the events which tore apart his family and the people who orchestrated them.

It is several years before Leo comes even close to finding out what happened in the States, but he never gives up. He re-enlists in the army and goes to Afghanistan, trying to forget his pain all the while planning on his next move while trying to keep his family safe. Smith interweaves Leo’s present barren predicament with short, sharp vignettes from his past. From his early career as an MGB agent to his first meeting with Raisa and later life in Kabul in the 1980s, Agent 6 presents a wide sweep of Soviet history and the shifting political landscape including the prevalence of McCarthyism in the States. Even in two such ideologically different countries, Smith skillfully shows how the methods of intimidation and relentless persecution don’t differ that much. Leo is a child of Stalinist Russia and his inherent paranoia and instinct for survival will never disappear. As much as Agent 6 is a novel of betrayal and revenge, it is also one of love and loss.

Introducing the character of Jesse Austin, a famous black American jazz singer who is a vocal supporter of Communism, gives Smith an opportunity to show how Communism was perceived in the States and the ways in which the Soviets tried to exploit their most loyal overseas supporters. The scenes in which a young Leo is ordered to look after Austin on his visit to Moscow in the 1950s, how everything from his meeting with workers to a visit to the grocery store is orchestrated is almost comical if you can dismiss the consequences of anything going wrong. Austin’s subsequent persecution back in his own country is heartbreaking but is also a testament to the many victims of McCarthyism in the 1960s.

I wasn’t sure how Smith was going to top Child 44 and The Secret Speech, having crammed so much into both novels from politics to human nature. In Agent 6, he takes Leo’s story outside the USSR to New York and Kabul and the rise of the Taliban, although in hindsight, the career trajectory of an ex-Soviet agent is probably pretty limited. However, I’m not sure how successful this novel is compared to the previous two and how overall satisfying the ending is, although it’s probably the most realistic which, contrarily, is something I really liked about the novel. Perhaps Smith’s strength lies in his depiction of Soviet Russia, which he brings to life in all its frosty glory and paranoia.

But the characters of Leo and Raisa are firmly entrenched and you can only continue reading to find out what happens to them and their family. The trilogy, although slightly uneven, is a triumph.

Secret Speech

She’d justified teaching such falsehoods since it was necessary that her students learn the language of adulation, the vocabulary of State worship without which they’d be vulnerable to suspicion.

Tom Rob Smith’s The Secret Speech follows on from his searing debut Child 44 and is set seven years after the life-changing events that sent former MGB agent Leo Demidov and his wife Raisa on the run and to the brink of death and back. Leo now oversees the newly minted Homicide Department together with his partner Timur, who previously helped Leo as a fugitive, and Raisa is back teaching. Together with two traumatised orphan sisters whom Leo and Raisa have adopted, they are slowly rebuilding their fractured lives.

But once again Leo is thrust into the glare of the Soviet government when ex-members of the MGB start turning up dead, all found with a page of a supposedly secret speech Khruschev is rumoured to be giving, a speech so explosive it will overturn the USSR as they know it and the lives of all of its loyal citizens. Retribution is coming and people are afraid. Without having access to this speech and when they do get a copy, tainted, both Leo and Raisa must navigate the treacherous path that binds their lives to that of the State. For the State knows everything and will do anything to control you. Even if it means you must renounce your previous beliefs.

Smith is a master at cranking up the tension and paranoia as he did in Child 44. The happiness Leo and Raisa have finally attained is brief before they are thrust into danger once again. And this time, they have two young, vulnerable girls to protect. As both Leo’s and Raisa’s pasts come back to haunt them, they increasingly risk losing the love of their elder daughter Zoya, who cannot forgive Leo for her parents’ deaths. With a teenager bent on anarchism to control, Leo needs to once again rely on his skills as well as those of his family to protect them all. Because he has also been sent a page from the secret speech signalling that whoever is behind the lynching is after him too.

This time, Smith delves into the underground world of the Soviet gangs forged in the Siberian Gulags, the vory, and their wrathful leader bent on revenge. As well as terrifying descriptions of the huge prison ships transporting prisoners to the Gulags, he is also adept at bringing to life the fervour and naïveté of young revolutionaries, brainwashed and who want to overthrow the USSR in the annexed states on the edges of Russia. With enemies all around him who would do anything to hurt his family, can Leo save them?

I loved this as much as I loved Child 44. Leo is still a very interesting character, trying so hard to change and earn the love of Raisa who he knows is prepared to do whatever it takes to protect their children, even if it means letting go of him. But the one thing you know about Leo is that he never gives up. He’s like a Soviet era Jason Bourne but with a little more feeling. And what can I say about Raisa? I love her character. She’s strong, resilient and is as much of a survivor as Leo. Smith has created a truly independent and intelligent character in Raisa who would do anything to protect her loved ones. Leo is led by instinct but it is Raisa who uses her brain. And no one character is easy or one dimensional in this novel, especially Zoya, Leo and Raisa’s eldest daughter, so full of anger and grief that she cannot see through the choices she makes, only it’s immediacy, how it would hurt Leo. And she does this admirably. It seems Leo is destined to be surrounded by strong women he cannot control.

There is a lot of history and politics packed into The Secret Speech but the engaging and immediacy of Smith’s prose will keep you turning the pages. Read it! But only after you’ve read Child 44.

Child 44

Fear was cultivated. Fear was part of his job. And for this level of fear to be sustained it needed a constant supply of people fed to it.

Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 was all over the internet when I first started reading book blogs in 2008 and just before I started blogging myself. Reading about it everywhere made me very curious and every year I’d been meaning to give it a go but other books got in the way. But I’ve finally done it and in some ways I’m glad I waited because sometimes too much hype kills a book for me and Child 44 is one that fits perfectly into my perpetual fascination with all things Russian and Soviet era which began all those years ago with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and even further back with my father’s love of Marxism as a student with a political conscience.

What is it about Soviet Russia that still draws readers to novels set in that historical era? Shrouded in layers of secrecy, it’s only now that we are getting a clearer picture of how the Russians and their neighbours survived in such harsh times. Tom Rob Smith sets his tale in the 1950s just as Stalin’s power is waning with his health although the entrenched paranoia and cruelty is already an established force in Soviet political and daily life.

Terror was necessary. Terror protected the Revolution.

Leo Demidov is a proud believer in the Soviet State and a senior MGB officer at the Lubyanka, rooting out dissidence and upholding the reputation of the Soviet Union. A decorated officer, he lives a comfortable life with a beautiful wife, a nice apartment, access to food and goods and has been able to elevate his parents’ lives too. When he is ordered to pacify a colleague’s family after the death of their son, little does he know that this will start a chain of events which will lead to his career downfall and an epiphany so momentous that he will emerge a new man. A man with a conscience. As he ponders his past actions, he must confront the monster he has become just as he slowly realises that the death of his colleague’s son is not an accident but that there are more mutilated children’s corpses dotted around Russia which have been officially overlooked and swept aside. As he tries to salvage his soul, Leo begins to look into the murders and realises there is a serial killer on the loose. But in a State where the crime rate is supposed to be 0%, acknowledging a crime has happened is itself a crime. As Leo goes on the run with his wife, Raisa, time is running out as his rival, Vasili, who is determined to bring Leo down, closes in on him. Will Leo and Raisa catch the serial killer and, more importantly, can they survive in their own country? Because everyone has secrets, even Leo and Raisa.

Child 44 is indeed a tour de force, fast-paced and relentless and yet it dwells more on the state of Leo’s repentance and redemption that on the killings themselves based on the real-life serial killer Andrei Chikatilo. This is a welcome change to all the gore and violence so prevalent in today’s crime fiction which seem unnecessary when you realise that the real fear lies in the whispers of punishment and retribution that all Soviet citizens face if they put one foot wrong. Smith is masterful in showing the underlying fear and what people needed to do for survival in Stalin’s Russia. That you can trust no one is hammered into you from childhood, to have affection and sentimentality may mean your death. That you have choice in your life is also another. It’s a culture so close to ours and yet so alien.

Smith’s characters are full-bodied and in Leo, he has created someone who is not perfect and in some ways very naïve considering the kind of work he does. Outwardly, he is perfect, strong, trained in all the survival skills required as a soldier and operative. But emotionally, it is Raisa who is the stronger and who changes their relationship with each other. I love Raisa’s character, she is as strong as Leo, maybe not physically, but definitely mentally. And I can’t wait to read more about them in The Secret Speech and Agent 6, which complete the trilogy.

There’s a film based on the book coming out soon but I urge you to read the book first!

Monogram Murders

Please let no one open their mouths and find the gold cufflinks with the initials PIJ.

Poirot returns with a bang in The Monogram Murders set in 1929 amongst the sumptuous art nouveau backdrop of the fictional Bloxham Hotel. Agatha Christie’s mantle is taken up by Sophie Hannah, a contemporary crime writer with a substantial following. Anyone taking over from the Queen of Crime is facing a daunting task. And any lover of Christie’s work will inevitably read the novel with a fine tooth comb.

However, Hannah does Christie proud. Her Poirot is faithful, perhaps more to David Suchet’s portrayal, but when you start reading The Monogram Murders you feel you are falling comfortably back into familiar territory. His sidekick is Edward Catchpool, a young and inexperienced Inspector of Scotland Yard who is alternately frustrated and in awe of Poirot.

The mystery begins at Pleasant’s Coffee House, where Poirot takes his daily evening coffee, when a terrified woman known only as Jennie rushes in seeking refuge. Before she vanishes into the night, she leaves Poirot with the mysterious

Once I am dead, justice will be done, finally.

which sets him off on his new quest.

Poirot is recently retired and is taking a staycation at Mrs. Unsworth’s lodging house where Catchpool also resides. When he returns that evening, he witnesses Catchpool coming to terms with three murders he is investigating at the posh Bloxham Hotel. All three victims died at around the same time in different rooms but laid out in the same way and with a monogrammed cufflink in their mouths.

Poirot feels there is a connection with the mysterious Jennie but Catchpool is doubtful. And so the pair embark on their first investigation together as they uncover a wrong that was done 16 years ago and what looks like revenge finally being enacted in the present day.

Although I began the book with some trepidation, once the mystery gets going, I began to feel Hannah’s rendition of Poirot and the mystery approaching Christie’s hallmark darkness and complexity. Re-reading Christie, whom I’ve been reading since I was nine, I am always astonished by the real darkness and deftness with which she layers her novels. And I am glad to say Hannah’s version does not disappoint.

Poirot is a national institution and staying faithful to who he is may risk stereotyping him but deviating would be disastrous. All the elements are here in The Monogram Murders, the young lovers, a free artistic spirit, the vicar, the doctor and the maid.

I really enjoyed getting back into Christie’s world and I do hope Hannah will continue in this vein.

Theft of Life

Imogen Robertson’s fifth volume in her historical mysteries featuring Mrs. Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther is probably her darkest yet. Theft of Life begins with the transplanting of Harriet and her children to Berkeley Square where their friends, Owen Graves and his wards, the Earl of Sussex, Jonathan, his sister Susan and their half-brother Eustache, are currently residing due to the children’s education. Crowther is also in London to present his new work on anatomy and Harriet has followed him to avoid her sister’s attempts at finding a suitable second husband for her.

No sooner are they settled in when Harriet’s senior footman, William, is witness to a body found near St. Paul’s, tied, stretched out and wearing a metal mask only a former slave would recognise. Shaken, William is reluctant to admit to the authorities the identity of the dead man, a notorious slave owner from the West Indies. And so Harriet and Crowther are called to examine the corpse, identified by William as a Mr. Trimnell, and are drawn into the dark, violent world of slavery that has bolstered and financed British trade, especially that of sugar.

Stories of slavery run by the British are few and far between. We are more familiar with films and books built on testaments of American slaves and I admire Robertson for tackling such a difficult subject head on. She reserves no punches and does not wallow in sentimentality. It’s brutal, horrific and tragic and she has drawn on historical sources to craft a story that is a vivid reminder of the hypocrisy of respectability. Set before the abolition of slavery in Britain, Robertson uses the testaments and stories of the free slaves, who have managed to carve out an independent life in England but who still retain the fear and nightmares from their past, and those who endeavoured to help them.

As Crowther and Harriet begin their investigation into Trimnell’s death which at first points to a former slave intent on revenge, Eustache is caught stealing a book and is sent to work off his punishment at Hinckley’s Bookshop run by Francis Glass, a free black man. When Francis’ beloved, Eliza Smith, dies in a suspicious fire in her bookshop one night, he is convinced that there was foul play. He had seen a wound in her eye and her body was cold to the touch before he was dragged away by the local constable and the shop collapsed. The social world which the rich and powerful inhabit in London is a small one and those with connections to the slave trade will at one time or another all congregate at the Jamaica Coffee House. And soon the two disparate events collide as Crowther, Harriet and Francis Glass begin to realise that what they are up against is a group of powerful people who will do anything to keep the status quo and, more importantly, their past evils buried and forgotten.

In Theft of Life, Robertson has once again crafted a gripping historical thriller, dark, pacey and heartbreaking. One of the things I like about Crowther and Harriet’s partnership is that it is based on mutual understanding and respect which has, gradually over time, turned into a deep friendship. The lack of sentimentality and easy romance which can be prevalent in this genre, and one which I admit I sometimes hanker after, is refreshingly missing here. I cannot wait for the next one in the series.

Previous novels in the series:
Instruments of Darkness
Anatomy of Murder
Island of Bones
Circle of Shadows

I read this as part of R.I.P. IX.

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Servant of the Underworld

Aliette de Bodard is a writer I’ve been aware of for a number of years but whom I’ve only started reading this year and I’m furious with myself that I’ve left it this long to find such an incredible writer. I’ve read a number of her short stories set in her Xuya universe, science fiction set in an alternate universe exploring her Vietnamese roots, and also some featuring her Aztec priest who investigates suspicious deaths. And so I couldn’t wait to read her debut novel, Servant of the Underworld, featuring Acatl, Head Priest of the Temple of Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the God of Death and his consort, who rule over Mictlan, the Underworld. Like many, I know almost nothing about the Mexica Empire save for the tales of the Spanish conquistadors who brought down the once glorious empire with violence and disease and took away chocolate and gold. What de Bodard does here is not only entice us with ancient history but weaves together aspects of magic and religion which were so thoroughly integrated in Aztec society. And she does this with aplomb.

Set in the Aztec city state of Tenochtitlan in 1480 when the Revered Speaker Axayacatl, Emperor of the Mexica, lies dying, Acatl’s life is turned upside when his elder brother Neutemoc, a Jaguar Knight, is arrested for abducting the priestess Eleuia from her blood-soaked bedroom. Acatl has never been on easy terms with his successful brother, a warrior, husband and father and the pride of his parents, not since he chose to become a priest thus sealing his cowardice in his family’s eyes. But nevertheless, he feels compelled to help Neutemoc, not least because the status and honour of their family is in danger. Eleuia wasn’t well liked by the teachers or students in her House of Tears, where she was employed, because of her ambition and allure. What was Neutemoc, a respectable, married warrior doing in Eleuia’s room? And what magic lies at the root of her disappearance? As Acatl tries to save his brother, he must confront and finally stand up to his worst fears. In his quest, he is aided and impeded by Ceyaxochitl, Guardian of the Sacred Precinct and agent of the Duality, who has simultaneously championed and forced Acatl onto his career path as High Priest of Mictlantecuhtli, and her slave Yaotl. Acatl’s sister Mihmatini who has recently returned to live with Neutemoc and his family surprises him with her calm acumen and skill with spells and tries to keep her brothers’ bond secure. And then there is Huei, Neutemoc’s wife, heartbroken and furious.

As well as the mystery of Eleuia’s disappearance, someone or something with great magical powers is determined to see that Neutemoc is executed for a crime he may or may not have committed. For Acatl, who is unhappy in his position both at work and at home, this is a testing time. He must win the loyalty of the priests in his Temple as well as the ears of the Court. And the only person who is there to help him is Teomitl, a young warrior sent to him by the Guardian, still a student, strong-willed and wild. Acatl must swallow his complaints and start looking for the answers before something worse that the execution of his brother is set in motion as it soon becomes clear that Eleuia’s abduction is only the tip of a war between gods.

Aliette de Bodard has managed to make a complicated mystery into an alluring journey into a past with which most of us are probably unfamiliar. But she does it seamlessly, merging historical figures with her fictional creation, placing us firmly in a land in which magic and ritual are alive and part and parcel of daily life. There are spells, sacrifice and lots of blood. But the blood is necessary for protection and spells and we don’t question it. It’s a mark of an accomplished writer indeed when you don’t recoil in horror as the main character cuts himself frequently to obtain the blood necessary for his rituals.

One of the interesting aspects of this novel is Acatl’s inner transformation. A conflicted soul, trying his best to carry on in his chosen path, yet burdened with the disappointment of his family. He is solitary, unable to participate in court politics because of his disgust with humanity’s baser instincts, and is only redeemed through his fight with evil and in the process, discovering social bonds he had though he had lost and never possessed.

Servant of the Underworld , the first in a trilogy, brings to light Aztec society in it’s full and frightening glory. The strict hierarchical social structure of priests, warriors and slaves, the rituals and strong belief in deities with powers to end the world, the absolute power of the Revered Speaker to keep the darkness at bay and the sun in the sky. And also the beauty of Aztec culture. Imagine going to a school called the House of Tears where the children of the wealthy are educated. And the binary nature of the gods with the male and female forms with names such as the Southern Hummingbird (God of War and of the Sun), the Jade Skirt (Goddess of Lakes and Streams) and the Quetzal Flower (Goddess of Beauty and Love). In amongst the harshness of life in Mexica, there is a fragile and painful beauty.

I can only imagine the amount of research that has gone into producing such a detailed and complex tale and yet de Boddard wears her research lightly. And in doing so, she has created a wonderfully complex world pulsing with emotion and colour.

You can be sure I will follow Acatl’s adventures in the sequels, Harbinger of the Storm and Master of the House of Darts.

I read this as part of Diversiverse, R.I.P. IX and #ReadWomen2014.

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R.I.P. IX is here!

5 September, 2014

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The only thing that makes the end of summer OK, is Carl’s wonderful R(eaders). I(imbibing). P(eril) Challenge which is celebrating it’s 9th year. It’s one of the first reading challenges in which I participated and I look forward to it every year. And although I may not post a wrap-up post each year, I love every minute of choosing and reading my list of books which are mainly from my shelves as well as seeing what others are dipping into. And how gorgeous is the artwork for this year’s challenge?

As usual, I’m hoping to read at least four books in the following categories: mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror and supernatural which, to be honest, are my favourite genres. So bring it on!

My pool of books from which I plan to read four (or more!) are:

The Fire by Katherine Neville – I loved The Eight which I read years ago.
The Abomination by Jonathan Holt – murder in Venice.
Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard – completely blown away by her short stories so I need more – an Aztec mystery!
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith – just because it’s JKR!
Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray – the nights are drawing in and I’m in need of something spookay.
Faithful Place by Tana French – I really need to get back into French’s writing.
The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin – it’s just been shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger!
She Lover of Death by Boris Akunin – Erast Fandorin in the house!
A Vengeful Longing by R.N. Morris – the third mystery in a series featuring Porfiry Petrovich from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – time travel and the Black Death!

Of course I’ll be adding and subtracting from this list, but who’s counting, right?

So will you be joining us? And, more importantly, what will YOU be reading?

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