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The Trinity Six: A Novel by Charles Cumming

The Trinity Six: A Novel (edition 2011)

by Charles Cumming

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Title:The Trinity Six: A Novel
Authors:Charles Cumming
Info:St. Martin's Press (2011), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 368 pages
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The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming



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NYT Sunday Book Review
A Thriller Revisits the Cambridge Spies
MARCH 18, 2011

The five spies from Trinity College, Cambridge, may have betrayed their country during the cold war, but they performed an indisputable service for British literature. A number of works have either been inspired or enlivened by the misdeeds of Kim Philby, John Cairncross, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt. In Anthony Powell’s panoramic “Dance to the Music of Time,” for example, Lord Widmerpool gets into political hot water for what his wife derisively calls “his little under-the-counter Communist games.” Then there is the Irish writer John Banville’s elegant roman à clef, “The Untouchable,” which explored Blunt’s life. And novelists of such varying stripes as Ian Fleming and John le Carré have drawn sustenance from the treachery that emanated from 1930s Cambridge, where enlistment in the worker’s revolution seems to have easily accompanied sipping claret, participating in debauches and collecting Poussin paintings. After Burgess and Maclean, and later Philby, fled to Moscow, the K.G.B. must have sometimes wondered whether the information they supplied was worth the sheer bother of having to put up with these spoiled brats.

In his new novel, “The Trinity Six,” Charles Cumming, a young British journalist and the author of several thrillers, posits that there was a sixth double agent. The extraordinary range of legends and theories that have accreted around the Cambridge spies — like the contention, made by the onetime spy Peter Wright in his eccentric book, “Spycatcher,” that the former MI5 head Sir Roger Hollis was actually a Russian agent, or the notion propounded by a Russian defector that former Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a K.G.B. agent — form the hallucinatory backdrop to Cumming’s story. Add scenes set in Moscow, Vienna, Berlin and Budapest, substitute Putin’s Russia for Stalin’s, and you have the makings of a lively thriller.

Cumming offers astute assessments of the original spies. Philby is described by one character as a “sociopath” and Blunt as “utterly self-serving.” It was Burgess and Cairncross who “spied out of conviction rather than from some misguided sense of their own importance.” Perhaps Cumming’s most inventive stroke is to make his protagonist a historian. Sam Gaddis, who teaches at University College London, has just published a book called “Tsars” that, we are told, amounts to a “sustained attack” on the current Russian government, led by the former K.G.B. agent Sergei Platov. The Platov regime has no compunction about silencing its adversaries, but Gaddis has little illusion that his indictment will have much influence, or even sell more than 1,000 copies.

Gaddis seems to have reconciled himself to his modest career, but mounting debts, an importunate ex-wife and a child to support, as well as the desire to battle Platov’s Russia, upend his life. So, after his friend Charlotte Berg, a journalist, confides to him that she is on the verge of uncovering the identity of a sixth Cambridge spy and is promptly assassinated by the Russian intelligence service, Gaddis decides to prosecute the hunt to the end — partly in the hopes of avenging her death, partly in the expectation that he can strengthen his finances by writing a best-selling book.

With Russian agents lurking in England, Gaddis soon becomes enmeshed in the battle between Moscow and London. As one character warns him, “Never underestimate the extent to which S.I.S.” — Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service — “and the Russians loathe one another. It’s a blood feud.” Convinced that the sixth spy was named Edward Anthony Crane and that his death had been faked by MI6, Gaddis embarks upon a kind of forensic inquiry to unearth him. As Cumming shrewdly observes, Gaddis’s historical skills render him tailor-made for the task: “Historians specialize in the dead. Sam Gaddis had spent his entire career bringing people he had never met, faces he had never seen, names he had read about only in the pages of books, vividly to life. He was a specialist in reconstruction. He knew how . . . to pan the stream of history to reveal a nugget of priceless information.”

But as he excavates the past, Gaddis realizes that he himself is finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between fiction and reality in the phantasmagoric world he has entered. After learning that there was also an Oxford ring of spies — why should Cambridge have had all the fun? — Gaddis wonders “was Peter Wright’s version of events true, or a clever attempt to create a smokescreen?”

Gaddis’s counterpart is the beautiful British agent Tanya Acocella, who, among other things, impersonates a librarian to keep tabs on him for the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir John Brennan. Cumming vividly depicts the invasiveness of the British state. Still, the narrative thread slackens somewhat as Cumming piles improbability upon improbability. The big secret that Platov is so desperate to hide is far too obvious.

But Cumming’s eagerness to take Putin down a peg — even a fictionalized Putin — does suggest a laudable impulse, a sense of outrage at Russia’s nasty behavior. Cumming’s view acutely mirrors the sour mood in Britain, where relations with Russia remain badly strained over the November 2006 murder, in London, of the émigré and former K.G.B. agent Alexander Litvinenko, who had the misfortune of ingesting radioactive polonium 210 with a cup of tea. In chronicling the animosities between Russia and England, Cumming provides a notable addition to the accounts of the Cambridge spies.

By Patrick Anderson
The Washington Post
March 14, 2011

It may be best to begin a discussion of Charles Cumming's brilliant "The Trinity Six" with a look at the all-too-real spy scandal that inspired it.

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. ( )
  meadcl | Jan 23, 2016 |
I've been working my way steadily through Charles Cumming's backlist and I think this is the best so far. It helps that it relates back to the lodestone for much of British spy fiction, the Trinity Five; and it builds very cleverly from that base and links it to the modern world.
The protagonist is another version of Cumming's flawed heroes, albeit a bit older, and I found my self in sympathy with him from quite early on,
Like all good spy stories, the plot twists and turns with alacrity and it is certainly a page turner. Only "A Foreign Country" to go now; then my fixes of this excellent writer will slow down to the one book a year norm! ( )
  johnwbeha | Nov 18, 2015 |
Charles Cummings is quickly moving up my list. A solid British spy novel. ( )
  knittingmomof3 | Nov 24, 2014 |
Anyone who is in any way interested in spies, spying and the world of espionage in general, has surely read at least one of John le Carré's genre defining classics. Not the later gardening and Panama nonsense, but the unforgettable Cold War, 'Smiley' intrigues.

Especially if you're English, that is.

And if you are lucky enough to be English and of a certain age, then you probably already have the whole '30's Cambridge spy ring, the old boy network running the country from their hushed, mahogany and teak Club in The City, the Cold War and the whole East vs West thing as a big game, already with you when you read a book like this. You don't need the spy world explained to you again from scratch. You know what a 'dead letter-box' is, you know what 'tradecraft', 'Moscow Centre' and 'C' are. The author can, with a nod and a wink and relatively few words, have you with him and get on with other things. You understand the world he is writing about and what I can well imagine would seem a rather unbelievable, class-ridden, privileged, strange world - makes perfect sense.

(However, that could be surely be why a non-middle-aged, non-English person would get nothing from, for example, the recent (poor) 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' re-adaption. My Danish wife, for example).

But one big problem the way I see it, is like this: How much is fact and how much is John le Carré fiction become fact in our collective recollection? I can imagine that it might also be a problem for any new authors wanting to write a novel set in this world: Do you write about actual institutions, actual events and run the risk that no one believes the world you're describing, or do you use some of le Carré's inventions, base your fiction on fiction and have your readers assume you're writing about the truth.

Basically what I mean is, that all novels written into this particular period of the spy genre, surely have to be compared in some way or another, with the world le Carré created. How they stand up to that comparison is, unfortunately, how we then rate them. "It's good, but it's not as good as le Carré." "It's better than le Carré." "It's unrealistic (doesn't use le Carre's world)" That kind of thing. Maybe.

Whatever your opinions or experience of le Carré and the spy genre, it's well worth giving Charles Cummings' 'Trinity Six' a go. it won't disappoint. It is set in the recent past, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but is actually all about the present day repercussions from events that took place over the eighty years up until the fall of Communism. A middle-aged, recently separated from his wife academic, a lecturer in Russian affairs and part-time writer, gets dragged into present day intrigues and puts himself unknowingly in danger by getting himself caught up in other, old spy games. We travel around in Europe (surely a little less exciting since the fall of the Berlin Wall?) and we meet a variety of nice, not so nice and not so sure if they're nice, characters. There are young spies, middle-aged spies and un-reformed old Cambridge spies. It's very nearly bang up-to-date, technology-wise, but with enough links back to the good old spying glory days, to satisfy those still missing decent books about the Cold War - me, for instance. It's nicely paced and focussed, it doesn't dash unnecessarily about all over the place, it stays believable and has some decent twists, turns and revelations. Of course, the ordinary person caught up in an extraordinary world the don't understand, is nothing new, but the intrigue is genuine and there's some nice moments of suspense and uncertainty.

'Trinity Six' is a good, enjoyable read which often feels like an Alan Furst, (obviously set today rather than between the wars). That's absolutely ok with me. For those of us who have read le Carré's spy books, there's no avoiding the fact that it's not quite be up there with the Master's best. But if you haven't read le Carré, you may actually be the lucky ones and so 'Trinity Six' is an excellent entré to the mirror world of British old-school espionage.
( )
  Speesh | Mar 29, 2014 |
Another new author and an excellent read. Le Carre style espionage, exciting with good characters and great settings.
Thank you public library for the ability to read so much without the expense! ( )
  librarian1204 | Apr 26, 2013 |
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You know, you should never catch a spy. Discover him and then control him, but never catch him. A spy causes far more trouble when he's caught.
—Harold Macmillan
For my sister, Alex
for her children, Lucy, Edward, and Sophie
and to the memory of Simon Pilkington (1938-2009)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312675291, Hardcover)

A Washington Post Notable Fiction Book for 2011

The most closely-guarded secret of the Cold War is about to be exposed – the identity of a SIXTH member of the infamous Cambridge spy ring. And people are killing for it… 

London, 1992. Late one night, Edward Crane, 76, is declared dead at a London hospital. An obituary describes him only as a 'resourceful career diplomat'. But Crane was much more than that – and the circumstances surrounding his death are far from what they seem. 

Fifteen years later, academic Sam Gaddis needs money. When a journalist friend asks for his help researching a possible sixth member of the notorious Trinity spy ring, Gaddis knows that she's onto a story that could turn his fortunes around. But within hours the journalist is dead, apparently from a heart attack. 

Taking over her investigation, Gaddis trails a man who claims to know the truth about Edward Crane. Europe still echoes with decades of deadly disinformation on both sides of the Iron Curtain. And as Gaddis follows a series of leads across the continent, he approaches a shocking revelation – one which will rock the foundations of politics from London to Moscow…

“Cumming's novel is characterized by a gripping sense of realism. He displays a vast knowledge of spycraft and Cold War history, and the dense, three-dimensional world he crafts comes complete with seedy hotels and smoky nightclubs. The result is absolutely gripping. Taut, atmospheric and immersive—an instant classic.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review) on The Trinity Six

The Trinity Six is a Kirkus Reviews Best of 2011 Thrillers title.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:16 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Hard-up Russia expert Dr. Sam Gaddis finally has a lead for a book that could set his career back on track. He has staggering new information about an unknown sixth member of the infamous Cambridge spy ring -- a man who has evaded detection for his entire life. But when his source suddenly dies, Gaddis is left with just shreds of his investigation, and no idea that he is already in too deep.… (more)

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