It’s a Mystery: “A spy causes far more trouble when he’s caught”
By Charles Cumming
St. Martin’s Press, 2011
Between 1934 and 1937, while studying at Cambridge’s Trinity College five young men were recruited by Moscow Centre as agents of the Soviet NKVD (the forerunner to the KGB, today the FSB). Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and John Cairncross – known as “The Cambridge Five” – passed vast numbers of classified documents to their handlers in Soviet intelligence.
Books and films almost beyond number have been inspired by this questionable quintet. What is now clear is that their motives for treachery were ideological rather than financial. What lies behind the treachery? What makes the mole behave the way he does? I believe that in reality the moles who most interest people are not agents who betray their homelands for money, but those whose real motives remain wrapped in mystery. This particularly applies to such people as Blunt and Philby. Not even the most diligent biographers have satisfactorily explained why they acted as they did: neither was a typical ideological Soviet-type Communist by any means.
The star turn amongst the five defectors continues to be Philby. He has been introduced into spy fiction under his own name countless times, most notably in Frederick Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol (1984), and fictionalized often. Hands down, Philby’s most illustrious incarnation is in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1975), whose double agent Bill Haydon is based at least in part on Philby.
According to Professor Christopher Andrew in his history of MI5 The Defence of the Realm (2009), among institutions of higher learning, Cambridge has apparently produced the lion’s share of world class traitors. “Apparently” is operative here, no pun intended, because espionage is an invisible profession. According to Andrew:
They chose to work for Stalin’s regime while it was imprisoning and killing more people in peacetime than any other intelligence agency had imprisoned and killed in history….They explained away all evidence to the contrary through a sort of intellectual arrogance that only a Cambridge education can provide.
They led improbable double lives and did not all meet improbable ends. The trauma of their betrayals haunts British Intelligence to this day. The recruitment of the Cambridge spies is regarded as the most successful penetration by a foreign intelligence service in the history of espionage. More to the point, they created a cottage industry of speculation that their number was larger – larger by at least one, a sixth Cambridge spy. And what if that sixth is alive and finally ready to spill all the dirty secrets, large and little, Her Majesty’s government, for one, has worked so hard to suppress? That speculation is the centerpiece of Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six.
Professor Sam Gaddis, the reluctant hero of Trinity, is a flat broke, forty-three-year-old divorced academic who is a well-regarded scholar of modern Russia. He is a senior lecturer in Russian History at University College London. His latest book, Tsars, is a comparative study of Peter the Great and the current Russian president, Sergei Platov. Gaddis’s Platov is a former KGB spy, an indelible stain on the Russian character, a borderline sociopath who had, in less than ten years, ruthlessly destroyed the possibility of a democratic Russia. That the latter’s background and modus operandi greatly resembles a contemporary Russian President whose name begins with a P, is, of course, purely coincidental.
This point of view doesn’t buy Gaddis a lot of friends in Moscow. It does get him some attention at home. First, at his London book launch for Tsars, (bad white wine, small turnout) he is approached by a beautiful (what else?) young woman, Holly Levette, who wants to give him her late mother’s papers. Katya Levette was working on a history of the KGB: “A beautiful girl turns up like that, willing to hand over several hundred documents about Soviet intelligence, you don’t exactly turn a blind eye.”
His foray into Holly’s apartment turns up dozens of unmarked boxes filled to capacity with Katya’s files. Gaddis had Googled Katya, turning up articles under her name of no interest to him.
“Where did all this stuff come from?”
“Mum was friendly with a lot of Russian expats in London,” Holly explained, “Oligarchs, ex-KGB. You probably know most of them.”
“And she had a boyfriend once upon a time. Someone in MI6. I think a lot of stuff may have come from him.”
Next, forced to pay attention to his financial woes—back alimony, his daughter’s exorbitant school tuition, a large mortgage—he arranges lunch with his literary agent: “He would have to work his way out of the crisis. He would have to write.”
As it happens, his agent, Robert Paterson, has many more illustrious clients, but none with whom he would rather have spent three hours in an overpriced restaurant. Gaddis speculates that he might write “something with spies in it.” Paterson replies:
“Fiction isn’t your thing…. You should be thinking along the lines of a nonfiction title which can spin off into a TV series, a documentary with you in front of the camera….you’d be a natural for television…You’ve written about Platov, … so—yes—you might as well stick to spies. But we’d need poisoned umbrellas, secret KGB plots to knock off Reagan or Thatcher, irrefutable evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lovechild of Rudolf Nureyev and Svetlana Stalin. I’m talking cover of the Daily Mail. I’m talking scoop.”
…Gaddis was at once flattered and bemused that Paterson should consider him capable of unearthing a story on that scale. He was also concerned that Holly Levette’s boxes would contain nothing…”I’ll work on it,” he said.
That evening, in what he would always remember as a pivotal moment in his life, he goes to dinner at the Hampstead house of Charlotte Berg and her husband Paul. She had been his flatmate at Cambridge and, briefly, his lover. A former war correspondent currently freelancing political stories, she can’t wait to share the details of her latest piece, to be sold, she hopes, to the Sunday Times. She claims it’s the biggest scandal of the decade.
“I’m sitting on a scoop,” she said.
Gaddis reflected that it was the second time that day that he had heard the word.
“What kind of scoop?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be a scoop if I told you, would it?”
Of course, after enough wine, she does just that:
“What if I told you there was a sixth Cambridge spy who had never been unmasked? A contemporary of Burgess [et al], who is still alive today?…I’m talking about a legendary KGB spy, code named ATTILA, who matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the 1930’s. … A mole at the heart of Britain’s political and intelligence infrastructure whose treason has been deliberately covered up by the British government for more than fifty years.”
Almost before Gaddis can digest the idea, and sleep off the wine, Charlotte is dead. Cause, a heart attack, which Gaddis, had he thought about it at all, would have found suspicious. Unfortunately, he’s focused on combing Charlotte’s files, searching for Thomas Neame, Charlottte’s contact, who claimed he was a confidant of ATTILA. Neame proves more elusive than the Scarlet Pimpernel. Until Gaddis gets a lucky break (or is it just that?) that leads him to his quarry. After a sparring match, Neame catches Gaddis up short by slyly suggesting: “Why don’t we begin by walking the cat back?”
It’s an old spying term, he tells Gaddis. In the world of espionage, when an operation backfires, those involved must retrace their steps to find the cause. Starting with the winter of 1933, Gaddis is taken through the labyrinthine world of old spooks and what if’s. Is the old guy mad? Is ATTILA the sixth spy for real? Is his knowledge of the tools of tradecraft sheer fabrication?
The answer sends Gaddis on a high level cloak and dagger chase. The pursuit takes him to all the Cold War hot spots, from London to Moscow to Berlin and Vienna, over to Budapest and back to London. Along the way, he “coaxes” a few ex-spies out of their self-imposed hidey-holes; spies don’t get pink slips or severance pay. Meanwhile, people with information Gaddis needs begin to die or disappear. It’s a little late in the game, but he’s now convinced it started with Charlotte’s “heart attack.” Constantly on the run, Gaddis wonders not only if he will be next but whether his assailant will come from Russia’s FSB or Britain’s MI6.
A caveat from Neame haunts him: “Never underestimate the extent to which SIS and the Russians loathe one another. It’s a blood feud.” It all plays out with great finesse. And, trust me, the revelation that’s got those in the seats of power quaking is plausible enough to scare you. Moreover, the ending will keep you secure in the knowledge that things are seldom what they seem.
The Trinity Six is one stylish thriller. The intriguing characters are beautifully drawn, especially Gaddis and Neame. The postwar locales as well as Cambridge circa 1933 are rendered skillfully. And from the first page to the last, the tradecraft has the ring of authenticity that produces a knot in the stomach. It’s a sharply original espionage novel. Cumming introduces some new tricks, while handling the old ones with grand-slam finesse.
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.