By Patrick Anderson
Monday, March 14, 2011; C03
During the 1930s, a number of students at Trinity College, Cambridge, secretly joined the Communist Party; over time, they advanced to senior positions in British intelligence. Their conspiracy began to unravel in 1951 when Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, fearing exposure, defected to the Soviet Union.
A few years later, amid talk of a "Third Man," Kim Philby, too, fled to Moscow. Still later, it was revealed that Sir Anthony Blunt, an intelligence officer who became the queen's art adviser, and John Cairncross, another intelligence agent during and after the war, had been the fourth and fifth members of the group, who were known as the Cambridge Five. (Grateful Soviet leaders called them the Magnificent Five.)
Cumming's novel focuses on the belated search for a sixth traitor. Sam Gaddis, a 43-year-old professor of Russian history at University College London, has a female friend, a journalist, who is close to breaking a story about a sixth man. Then she dies of an apparent heart attack.
However, we readers know what Gaddis and the woman's husband do not, that she has been murdered. Gaddis, in urgent need of money for his ex-wife and child, decides to pursue the sixth-man story in the hope of writing a news-making, best-selling book. Soon he finds evidence that a 91-year-old member of the ring, named Edward Crane, may be alive and willing to talk.
But where is Crane? The search takes Gaddis from London to Moscow, Vienna, Berlin, Budapest and even New Zealand. At first he is unaware that he is being closely watched by Russian and British intelligence agents; because of modern technology, precious few of his phone calls, e-mails or conversations remain secret. Others who know about Crane are murdered, and Gaddis realizes that his own life is at risk. Two attractive women help him, but he isn't sure he can trust them; in fact, one is an agent of Britain's MI6 spy agency.
All this, in the hands of a less talented writer, might have been a routine spy thriller, but there is nothing routine about "The Trinity Six." Cumming writes smart, seductive prose, and he's gifted at revealing the subtleties of personality. Scene after scene crackles with excitement, tension and suspense. The novel's ingenious plot is almost as complicated as real life, but as one astonishing revelation follows another, the book is all but impossible to put aside.
Finally, as a bonus for readers who have forgotten the story of the Cambridge Five, or never knew it, the novel is a welcome reminder of the greatest spy scandal of the 20th century.
One aging spy who knew the Cambridge Five offers Gaddis opinions on their personalities and motivations. Maclean hated America, he says, Burgess was ideological and Philby was a sociopath. Some were gay, he notes, and may have been embittered because British law defined them as criminals. He adds: "Guy was also, of course, a famous philanderer. What Kim was to the girls, Guy was to the boys." Famous for his outrageous behavior when he was stationed in Washington during the war, Guy Burgess drank himself to an early death in Moscow in 1963.
In the novel, both the British and Russian governments fight to keep the sixth spy unknown. (British officials were for years accused of covering up or minimizing the harm done by the original Five, lest their own competence come into question.) Cumming pointedly makes the present-day Russian leader a character in his novel. He calls him Sergei Platov, but his history (KGB agent turned politician) is clearly meant to suggest Vladimir Putin. This strongman is described as, among other things, a monster, a murderer, a thug and a would-be czar. One wonders if this book is destined for publication in Russia.
With this novel, Cumming joins Alan Furst, David Ignatius and Olen Steinhauer among the most skillful current spy novelists, and he bears comparison with masters such as John le Carre and Graham Greene.
Indeed, "The Trinity Six" has a superficial resemblance to Greene's 1978 novel, "The Human Factor." Greene had worked with Kim Philby in British intelligence during the war and considered him a friend. "The Human Factor" is a psychological study that seeks to explain why a man might betray his country as shockingly and cynically as Philby did.
"The Trinity Six" is superior fiction, but it isn't a psychological study. It's a sophisticated thriller that takes its spies at face value and focuses on a conventional hero, a likable, stubborn and rather naive man who is trying to survive in a world of duplicity and danger.
Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers for the Post.
THE TRINITY SIX
By Charles Cumming
St. Martin's. 356 pp. $24.99