I admit I had no idea that this series was intended as a trilogy until I saw Agent 6 at the bookstore last weekend. I loved the first novel in the series, and while the second one didn't love up to it, I still enjoyed it. Overall, I would say the same thing about this third and concluding novel. Good, but nothing beats the first one. I think one of the reasons for this is that Child 44 is a more intimate, and tighter story - it is all about tracking a serial killer while in comparison The Secret Speech featured a detour to Budapest (during the rebellion) while this novel spans three decades and includes scenes in New York and Afghanistan. However, that also means that the novels cover quite a bit of Soviet Union history and some of the major incidents involving the USSR post World War II. The other reason I think I generally preferred the first novel is that it is a story of disillusionment and redemption. Leo, a dedicated and loyal member of the secret police who truly believes, begins to reevaluate his life, his actions and what the State really does. The Secret Speech shows what happens when Leo's past comes to haunts him, even after he has changed his ways. Agent 6, on the other hand, shows what happens when Leo loses his purpose in life and no longer has a reason to care.
The novel begins in 1950 when Leo is part of a security detail for the American singer/celebrity Jesse Austin who is visiting the USSR. The Soviet government wants to make a good impression on this very famous supporter, and Leo plays an important role in keeping him happy. At this same time, Leo has become interested in a woman he keeps seeing on his route to work, Raisa, a school teacher, and as readers of the series know, his future wife. After using this to introduce the characters and set the scene for later, the novel flashes forward to 1965, nine years after The Secret Speech. Raisa's star has risen within the school system, and she has organized a trip to the US for a select number of music students to perform at the UN in New York. As one of her conditions, her adoptive daughters Zoya and Elena will accompany her, though Leo must stay home - due to his resignation from the KGB, he is black-marked and somewhat ostracized, which means no trips outside the country. Unfortunately, it quickly turns out that Elena has become a pawn in some type of conspiracy and things begin to unravel after Elena visits Jesse Austin, pleading with him to attend the children's performance. Austin's life and livelihood have been destroyed by the McCarthy hearings and FBI harassment as a result of his public support of Communism. While Elena completely believes in her cause, it becomes clear that she is being used for a nefarious purpose. As the novel progresses, the question is what is the actual plan, and how will it affect Leo and his family? After it all goes down, the reader is left with a cover story for a botched conspiracy and three dead bodies.
From here, the novel flashes forward seven years for a quick interlude, before ending up in Afghanistan in 1980. Leo continues to struggle with the question of what happend in New York fifteen years ago, but has given up hope of ever getting to New York or finding the answers, instead spending his days in an opium filled haze. However, events in Afghanistan are about to conspire to give him an opportunity to move forward and fulfill his vow to discover the truth.
While I enjoyed the book, I feel like the biggest issue wasn't the novel itself, but rather the advertising. The backcover, for example, reads "3 decades, 2 murders, 1 conspiracy," putting the focus on the conspiracy. However, it seems rather clear in the first half of the novel what the conspiracy's intent was, even though there was one piece that didn't make much sense to me and it still didn't compute by the end. Leo is driven by the question of what happened, and what caused his family to lose a member, but the story's focus isn't on solving this mystery - instead, it is about Leo's reactions, his despair, and his search for meaning. In Child 44, Leo's purpose in life was the State. Once he became disillusioned with it, his family and his wife became his life - this novel explores what happens when this is taken away as well. Given how much I grew to like Leo over the course of the other novels, I can't say I'm happy with how things ended up for him, but I am glad to see his story wrapped up. I would also argue that it helps to read the three novels in this series close together because I think some of the impact was reduced for me because it had been such a long time since I had spent time with one of the other characters. I would definitely recommend the series, but as I said above, the first novel is the strongest.