I say contrived because throughout the book the plot threatens to take over, spin out of control, stretch credulity, go all Jason Bournesky on is, especially once it's in Afghanistan, but each time we come back to Smith's real themes, and he pulls us back into the clutches of Demidov's story. IT's risky, in the sense that Demidov's ability to 'beat' the system and continue to function within it is a necessity, but one that threatens to undercut the picture of Soviet society he builds. For example, much is made of the way punishment is visited on the families of those the system decides are enemies—not from vindictiveness but simply because that is the way the system operates. Yet Lev's family is allowed to leave the country and travel to the land of the great enemy, and Lev himself is spared ultimate punishment and sent to Afghanistan instead. Smith is a good enough writer to make sure these things do not challenge our willing suspension of disbelief, but they do gnaw away slightly at the edges of his portrayal of the USSR.
Two things make that portrayal ultimately convincing. One, which will be familiar to anyone who read either of his first two cases, is Demidov himself. To an extent the whole trilogy has been about the battle of an individual's humanity against the collective force of government. Lev is a moving and believeable everyman, a detective as compelling in his obsessive nature and his understanding of people as Harry Bosch or Kurt Wallander. Agent 6 is driven by the original plot, but only picks up steam when Lev takes centre stage. Yet even as the New York story is set up, Lev's human values are already being set against the priorities of the people who represent the two warring systems, the dialect versis the human. In Lev's case, this inevitably boils down to a question of betrayal of trust; a prologue set in 1950 shows us that dilemma acted out with Lev on the wrong side, which will be reflected ironically when his decision not to intrude on his daughter's privacy leaves him unable to protect her.
Which leads to the second reason is compelling, and that is the careful way Smith draws out the affinties between the two sides. The FBI's hounding of the black folk singer Jesse Austin may not be as fatal as the attentions of the KGB, but it is every bit as capricious, vindicative, and inhumane--although Smith does hedge his bets slightly by showing the FBI agent villain as somewhat of a bad apple, whereas he's clear about the institutional evil of his Soviet counterparts--except, as with Lev, they aren't. Which may well be the strongest way to make his point about the system.
And as Smith outlines the realities of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan it is hard not to recognise the distinct parallels between their Vietnam and the current Afghan mess in which the US and UK have mired themselves, and which has now gone on for a year more than the Soviet's. Smith may be too careful, in the sense of setting up the reminder that the Mujahideen the US backed to irritate the Soviets opened the door for the Taliban, and eventually themselves spawned Al Queda. He doesn't try to spell it out, and shouldn't need to, but sometimes you feel he's aware there may be many who simply won't see it.
It comes to a moving end, though I suppose Lev's fate could be considered somewhat open ended, in the sense that he's been a survivor, and sometimes an unlikely one, throughout the series. But it is more powerful to take the book's climax as it is stated, with human values and relationships triumphing even in the face of the cruelest and ultimate institutionalised repression. In that sense, Lev Davidov is a true everyman hero, who manages to transcend the mechanics of his own stories; Tom Rob Smith's first detective creation is both memorable and meaningful.
Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith, Simon & Schuster £16.99 ISBN 9781847375674