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Review: 'The Trinity Six'

The Cold War's Most Infamous Spy Rings Haunts the Present In Charles Cumming's Novel.

By Matthew KresalPublished 7 years ago 3 min read

For those with an interest in espionage, the Cambridge Five remain well known. Five graduates of Trinity College Cambridge, the group infiltrated high levels positions inside the British government between the 1930s and 1950s and spied for the Soviet Union. They handed over names of agents, exposed entire operations, revealed details of the Enigma code-breaking effort, and helped to tip the Soviets off on efforts to build the atomic bomb. It took decades to expose all five but imagine, for a moment, that there was a sixth Cambridge spy. One who has managed to remain hidden but is now on the verge of being exposed. That is the premise of Charles Cumming's 2011 novel which sees the past coming back to haunt the present.

The Trinity Six opens not with a secret agent but with an academic. Sam Gaddis is an academic specializing in Russian history but not a media personality but any means. He's also divorced, broke, and in need of money. So when a journalist friend offers him the scoop of a lifetime and a major book deal to go alongside it, he jumps at the chance. In the tradition of spy novels dating back more than a century, Gaddis soon finds himself over his proverbial head dealing with a whole cast of characters. These include members of MI6, the Russian FSB, the daughter of a fellow researcher, and an old man who claims to be in possession of the sixth man's unpublished memoir. Gaddis becomes a detective, digging through archives and conducting interviews as he tries to piece the story together.

Now you may be asking yourself how a Cold War era secret agent might potentially be a threat to current diplomatic relations between the UK and Russia? Approximately halfway through the novel, Cumming shifts gears as it becomes clear that the sixth man had a connection to the present that still threatens both countries decades on. From then on, The Trinity Six becomes almost a man on the run novel with Gaddis trying to uncover the truth that so many including the head of MI6 and the Russian president (a thinly disguised analog of Vladimir Putin) would prefer to remain buried. For those expecting a novel dedicated entirely to the titular subject are likely to be in for a disappointment but those willing to be a bit more open to the journey Cumming puts them on are in for an enjoyable ride with some intriguing twists.

Cumming knows how to put a compelling narrative together. Following a brief, slightly potted history of the spy ring, he sends the reader straight into the narrative with an opening chapter that sets up the mystery of the novel rather nicely. His characters are nicely drawn, giving enough depth to allow readers to 'meet' Gaddis and the whole cast of characters without getting bogged down to the point of slowing down the narrative. There's also a nice sense of location as well as the academics hunt for the truth takes him across the UK and then to Moscow, Eastern Europe, and even all the way across the world to New Zealand. Cumming's approach feels like a nice combination of the best of le Carre and Fleming, those polar opposites of the genre who have defined it so much though he leans more towards le Carre it must be said. Though the ending feels a little rushed, the overall product is quite satisfying.

The Trinity Six stands then as a solid spy thriller, albeit one with an outsider at its center. It explores the ongoing legacy of the Cold War (and its most infamous spy ring) on the intelligence world today while also telling a story relevant to the post-Cold War world with Russia's increasingly frosty relations with the West. For those looking for a fine recent example of the spy genre, you could do worse than giving The Trinity Six a read.


About the Creator

Matthew Kresal

Matthew Kresal was born and raised in North Alabama though he never developed a Southern accent. His essays have been featured in numerous books and his first novel Our Man on the Hill was published by Sea Lion Press in 2021.

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