Given that I worked for Jamie Byng when he slammed the longlisting of Child 44 for the Booker in 2008, I wasn’t expecting to see it in the mail. But there it was, as a bonus novel to accompany the imminent publication of Agent 6, Tom Rob Smith’s latest thriller starring Leo Demidov.
I’ll lay my cards on the table — I’m not a big reader or buyer of thrillers (although I could never resist Ian Rankin). True crime I like, if done well. And I have tried to read authors who get a lot of press (James Patterson, Stieg Larsson), but have been invariably bored by the books I’ve read (James Patterson, Stieg Larsson). So it was with a slight sense of trepidation that I decided to read Child 44 and Agent 6 sooner rather than later.
Child 44 opens with Leo Demidov in his thirties, a rising star in the MGB (the former NKVD), married to Raisa and by all accounts, living a relatively good life in Stalinist Russia. He has no qualms about arresting seemingly-innocent citizens, presuming them guilty since the State knows what it’s doing and he is a patriotic person who wouldn’t be investigating them if they had nothing to hide.
I cheated and skipped ahead to the acknowledgements when I was only a little of the way through as the blurb said it was based on a real-life investigation. I was expecting to find a story about Cold War intrigue and Russian state suppression, but then Smith said he’d based it on Andrei Chikatilo’s crimes, but not his motivations.
What? Andrei Chikatilo, child murderer? That threw me. But I read on.
To cut a potentially deathly boring review short, I preferred the earlier part of the novel, which dealt with the horrifying results of maintaining ‘Communist’ authoritarianism. And I wasn’t sure what I would think of Agent 6. There was a sequel to Child 44 published, The Secret Speech, but I haven’t read it.
So. Agent 6 opens in 1950, when Leo is a young MGB officer, and he’s just met Raisa. We get this back story in Child 44, but Smith expands on it here, telling us what really happened. We then skip ahead 15 years and meet Leo and Raisa again, as well as their two adopted daughters — they are now living in relative poverty, as Leo is no longer an asset to the State. Leo stays behind while his family goes to New York on a peace concert tour, and bad shit happens, pretty much breaking Leo. The novel skips ahead several years at a time and eventually settles some time in 1980.
On the whole, I can see why Child 44 was a success, but I think Agent 6 is better. Spoilers follow.
Anyone who’s been interested in recent events (and like a thriller) should find this novel interesting. A lot of Agent 6 is set in Afghanistan, where the Soviets were desperately trying to gain and hang onto control. We all know how well that went, and the novel kind of plays it out ‘on the ground’. Leo, in his efforts to blunt the pain of losing his wife, is now a hardcore opium addict and serves as an adviser to the Soviets in this harsh environment. When he is given no choice but to oppose his political masters, he’s finally given the chance to find out what really happened in New York.
The scenes in New York are probably my favourite part of the novel. The mainstream media tends to present the Cold War period as a simple dichotomy: Communism was bad and the capitalist West was good. Agent 6 quite realistically illustrates that this was not the case. If you’ve never read much about McCarthyism, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, or simply aren’t terribly interested in history and politics, this should open your mind quite a bit. The Cold War wasn’t about living up to ideals, it was about capturing and maintaining global dominance. In short, it was about realpolitik.
As a crime thriller, Child 44 excels in giving us more than just chase scenes and plot twists. Agent 6 is less crime and more thrilling fiction. While the premise is about a husband’s investigation into his wife’s death, it definitely takes a back seat to the story of the Soviet Union and its relations with the United States.
(Child 44 and Agent 6 were sent as part of a Real Readers promotion. Agent 6 was a proof copy.)