Imagine if the head of counter-intelligence for the CIA were unmasked to be a Soviet agent. Seems inconceivable, doesn't it? Yet Britain underwent precisely that in the '50s and '60s as Kim Philby was revealed to be a Soviet double agent, along with his college friends, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and Cairncross, who've come to be known as the Cambridge Five. Their decades-long betrayal of Britain was devastating.
Trinity Six is based on the premise that the so-called Cambridge Five were in fact the Trinity Six, to include a sixth man they met as undergraduates at Trinity. Sam Gaddis is an academic who studies Russian, and seems to have stumbled into evidence about the sixth man. Gaddis is a not-entirely-sympathetic divorced professor with womanizing instincts, trying to run the sixth man to ground.
To anyone interested in espionage or espionage fiction, the premise is promising. Yet the novel, while somewhat enjoyable, is proof that writing a great espionage novel is much harder than it looks. Trinity Six struggles to figure out what kind of novel it is - is it going to be a modern-day Robert Ludlum action adventure story, with only a veneer of historicity? Or is it going to be a le Carre study in character? Or a quasi-historical view into MI6 a la Robert Littell? Unfortunately in the end, it ends up being mostly a Ludlum-style adventure, crashing from incident to incident. The historical premise of the Cambridge Five is mostly wasted. There's no disclosure of any hidden historical mysteries. The plotting is often clumsy, and Gaddis often doesn't realize things that are obvious. Ever watched a horror movie where everyone but the main character knows there's a killer underneath the bed? That's how Trinity Six feels about once per chapter.
Trinity Six also struggles with what is supposed to be known, and not known - things are revealed early on that shouldn't be, and other things not revealed that should be. Is the identity of the sixth man supposed to be known to the reader or not? Hard to tell - the book often seems to accidentally disclose things. And virtually every other page, some character says something that just feels wrong, and jars your sense that what is happening is believable.
My advice? If you're stuck on a plane and you have Trinity Six, it will pass the time. But if you have a choice, pick up any of Robert Littell's novels (say, Legends), or an old le Carre novel you haven't read - a much better investment of your time. Or, if you want something a little different, Declare by Tim Powers (a fantastical story with roots in the legend of Kim Philby).
(I received a copy of The Trinity Six through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program - thanks LibraryThing!)