Archive for February 13, 2012

What is Cambridge University’s major claim to fame? 

Some might say it was taking part in an annual  boat race on the River Thames against Oxford University, or being among the most highly rated universities in the world, but it also might be providing an education to the most notorious gang of traitors in British history. 

While studying at Trinity Hall and Trinity College, Cambridge in the 1930s, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, and John Cairncross  were recruited by Moscow Centre as agents of the Soviet NKVD.

These traitors worked for the Stalinist regime while it was murdering hundreds of thousands of its own citizens, while it signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the Nazis in 1939, while it invaded Poland and the Baltic States, and while it imprisoned millions behind an Iron Curtain that ran from “Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”.  Moscow’s “Magnificent Five” penetrated the British establishment to the very highest levels, but what if  there was a sixth man? That is the premise of Charles Cumming’s novel The Trinity Six.

I had an hour to spare, while waiting for my wife in Newton Abbot, after having lunch with friends, so I popped in to Waterstones and spotted Charles Cumming ‘s The Trinity Six on special offer, displayed alongside John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I thought this would be a good fit for my 2012 Spy Story Reading Challenge, which has  so far featured excellent books by Aly Monroe and Charles McCarry, and purchased it on a whim.

Sam Gaddis is an academic, a senior lecturer in Russian History at University College, London, who has written a comparative biography entitled Tsars about Peter the Great, and the current fictional ruler of Russia, Sergei Platov. Platov is an ex KGB thug, who uses violent methods to silence opposition both at home and abroad, and bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to any real person. 

Sam Gaddis is broke requiring money for his daughter Min’s school fees, and an HMRC income tax bill. Five year old Min lives in Barcelona with Natasha, Sam’s ex-wife and her boy friend, who spends more time on the ski slopes than running his restaurant.

Sam Gaddis wasn’t the sort of man who panicked, but equally he wasn’t the sort of man who had twenty-five thousand quid lying around for random tax bills and school fees. 

I love the expression random tax bills, and the scene where he meets his literary agent Robert Paterson, and they discuss his money worries. 

‘Always is , this time of year.’ Paterson nodded knowingly as he rounded off a veal cutlet. ‘Most of my clients have less idea how to manage their finances than Champion the Wonder Horse.’  

Sam is approached by the beautiful Holly Levette, whose mother Katya had a lot of papers and files some sent to her by an old boyfriend, who worked in MI6 during the Cold War. Perhaps he can make use of them for a book.

Later at dinner with Sam’s friend journalist Charlotte Berg and her husband Paul, Charlotte suggests they work together on a lead she has about a sixth man in the Cambridge spy ring. When Charlotte is found dead, apparently from a heart attack brought on by smoking and heavy drinking, Sam goes on the trail of the Cold War’s deadliest secret, the sixth man. But he needs to  avoid the Russian FSB agents who are bumping off everyone and anyone involved.

Sam’s travels take him from London, to Winchester, Moscow, Berlin, Barcelona and Vienna, while another beautiful young female enters his life. This book was obviously written with the possibility of a film in mind, and while one has to frequently suspend credulity at the plot developments it is a fun read. I do find it difficult to criticize anything written by someone who is President of the Jose Raul Capablanca Memorial Chess Society [Capablanca was one of my childhood chess playing heroes] but the plot deteriorates into a big disappointment. The big surprise is as predictable as Manchester Utd or Manchester City winning the Barclays Premiership. 

Don’t get me wrong I definitely enjoyed reading The Trinity Six, it is great fun, but only if you accept that much of the plot  is a little bit ridiculous, and that it assumes a competence for MI6 that events over the years might seem to prove to be misplaced. In a real life spy’s life if a beautiful 28 year old girl casually arranges a meeting, dinner and an invitation back to her flat the male protagonist is much more than likely to wake up with a terrible headache in either a cell in the Lubyanka,  somewhere in the Negev, or in the naval brig on Parris Island, South Carolina, than have a pleasant breakfast the next morning in Chelsea. 

The Trinity Six is a nice light read but I kept getting a feeling of deja vue while reading it. Others have compared Charles Cumming and his books to John le Carre, Len Deighton, Frederick Forsyth and even Eric Ambler, but I was reminded of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. When I read that book I patiently waited for the secret to be something more than the thesis put forward in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail published many years before Brown’s book. There was no surprise then with The Da Vinci Code, and unfortunately once again all the supposed twists in The Trinity Six are predictable.  At one point Sam leaves his contact at a vital point in their discussions to go to the bathroom and you know the result. But later back in London;

At half-past two, he found a Tesco spaghetti bolognese and some salad in the fridge.

The recession is obviously biting hard as I would have expected MI6 operatives to be able to afford at least Marks and Spencer or Waitrose ready meals. 

The Trinity Six is not as one reviewer claimed a wonderful piece of fiction, and on the evidence of this book Charles Cumming is not yet John le Carre, or Eric Ambler, but if you want a nice easy fun read about spies that does not make too many demands on the reader this may be for you.

Was there a sixth man? Probably, and a seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth………………….