Fiction, Spies

Novel: The Hidden Man by Charles Cumming

February 17, 2010

Lately, reading spy novels makes me want to write my own, so in order to stay motivated for my current project I turned directly from Stella Rimington to Charles Cumming.  Cumming’s first book, A Spy By Nature (here’s my review), truly had the feel of a momentous debut, so I was anxious to see if its follow-up The Hidden Man (2003) lived up to that promise.  Ultimately, I think it really does, although it’s a much different book, and perhaps not quite as polished structurally.

The “hidden man” of the title is Christopher Keen, a retired MI6 spook now in the private sector, whose intelligence career tore apart his family — destoying his marriage, and leaving his two sons, Ben and Mark, with hard feelings toward their father.  As the novel begins, Keen has reappeared in their lives and is trying to reconcile things.  His efforts are meeting with mixed results, however.  Mark, who happens to work for an international company Keen was gathering information on in his new job, is intrigued, and rebuilding the shattered relationship.  But Ben, a headstrong artist struggling to hold together a touchy marriage with his wife Alice (an ambitious journalist), is a much tougher sell.  The family dramas, of which there are many, are only complicated by the gradual intrusion of MI5; Mark’s employer is under investigation for possible ties to the Russian mafia and money-laundering.  An MI5 officer named Taploe has seized on the old hand Keen as a potential agent in his investigation, which eventually drags the entire family into the mix, with drastic consequences.

Like Cumming’s first novel, The Hidden Man is a smooth and flowingly written book populated by believable, distinctive characters.  But where A Spy By Nature is a mostly focused, first-person narrative telling one person’s story, The Hidden Man is a much different animal.  Told in third-person omniscient, the story ricochets in and out of its vast cast of characters’ viewpoints, telling a broader, more complicated tale, and splits its focus between a complex spy plot and an intricate web of family relationship issues.  Cumming clearly enjoys drawing parallels between the life of the spy and the lives of “regular people,” and he works that theme very well again here, as espionage bleeds into the day-to-day realities of his well drawn characters.  And of course there’s plenty of classic tradecraft, mystery, and adventure to be had, as the British secret world collides with international commerce, the Russian crime scene, and dredged up memories of western intelligence work in 1980s Afghanistan.

I’m not a big fan of the omniscient viewpoint, and I think it leads to a somewhat scattered feel to this novel (although I can see why he deployed the technique).  The novel also relies on a couple of big expository scenes to resolve itself in the latter stages.  But I still found it quite satisfying on the whole, and in my book Cumming is easily in the top rank of working spy novelists.  A Spy By Nature was clearly no fluke.

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