Fiction, Spies

Novel: A Colder War by Charles Cumming

September 5, 2014

The novels of Charles Cumming have a tendency to propel themselves immediately to the top of my to-read stack, and his latest, A Colder War (2014), isn’t likely to change this trend. The new Thomas Kell adventure is just as colorful, vivid, and enthralling as its predecessor.

Following the events of A Foreign Country, veteran agent Thomas Kell remains in professional exile, biding his time and waiting for the chance to get back to work for MI6. He gets his opportunity when there’s a crisis in Turkey: Paul Wallinger, an old friend and the head of station in Ankara, dies mysteriously in a plane crash. Kell’s fringe status once again situates him to discreetly investigate, a case that sends him to Istanbul and the islands of the eastern Mediterranean. There he reconnects with old colleagues, meets new ones, gathers and analyzes the intelligence, surveils suspects, and – unexpectedly – becomes romantically entangled with Paul’s spirited daughter, Rachel. As it turns out, Paul’s death may be connected to recent operational disasters in the Middle East, and as Kell follows the breadcrumbs, it quickly becomes clear there’s a gaping leak in the US-UK intelligence apparat – one that, until it’s plugged, will leave careers and lives hanging in the balance.

This is, first and foremost, assured and wholly engaging spy fiction. Picturesque locales, idiosyncratic operatives, thorny interservice politics, ideologies and betrayals, detailed tradecraft – it has all the wonderful earmarks of a compelling spy yarn. But what makes Cumming’s work so accessible for me is his focus on the “outspider spy:” the agents looking in from the edges, longing to belong to the secret world even as it seems determined to destroy them. Kell fits squarely into that mold, a tradition started with Alec Milius back in A Spy By Nature. He desires acceptance and inclusion in the spy world, and greatly resents it lack, even as he thrives on the fringes of that world. That notion resonates with me, I think, because when you expand the idea out, it touches on very human problems in the wider world: the complicated, unforgiving system of expectations, norms, and standards we hold ourselves up against, the world’s ruthless cliquism and croneyism, the power networks of privilege and policy and wealth. Cumming always deftly manages the surface details of the genre, but never loses sight of the human angle underneath it all: the personal motivations and the emotional costs. Kell is determined, cunning, highly ambitious, but also flawed: petty at times, prone to schoolboy jealousies and fits of rage. There’s always a person inside the spy in Cumming’s work, and that person’s struggle is often easy to relate to and sympathize with – because it so neatly parallels so many experiences an individual may have, when interacting with a group, an institution, even a society. It’s a strong theme that spy fiction is particularly adept at exploring – and Cumming, in my book, is definitely among the best at it.

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