Fiction, Spies

Novel: A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming

February 22, 2017

Charles Cumming’s latest is A Divided Spy (2017), which completes the trilogy featuring his outsider-spy protagonist Thomas Kell. While it doesn’t quite match the addictive quality of the previous volumes, it’s a bracing, accessible read that satisfyingly caps off the series.

Kell is again at loose ends as the story begins, when a former colleague, Harold Mowbray, lures him back into the game. By sheer chance, Mowbray has uncovered a deep, dark secret about Kell’s nemesis in Russia’s SVR, Alexander Minasian, that may make him susceptible to blackmail. Kell sees this as the opportunity it is: to turn Minasian back against the Russians as a double agent. But is it too good to be true, or is he being baited into a trap? Before bringing in MI6, Kell decides to run an investigative operation of his own, which leads to escalating treachery and violence in the secret war.

A Divided Spy boasts most of Cumming’s strengths: nuanced characterization, cleanly executed plot, and a trademark focus on the emotional cost of the business, particularly as it relates to Kell, for whom spying has become a form of self-destructive addiction. But he also provides Kell with a compelling foil in Minasian, a hated opponent who at first motivates him to revenge, but later comes to feel very much like a sympathetic opposite number. Their rivalry and relationship is the heart of the book, providing its most interesting insights and interactions.

Where A Divided Spy falls short, I think, is in its stakes. This failing may be a byproduct of the novel’s release amidst the upped-ante, conspiracy-theory nature of the current political climate, which I suspect has raised the bar on convoluted spy novel plotting for decades to come. Of course, Kell’s personal motives are clearly more central to the story than any wider political situation; the human element has always been more Cumming’s focus. But it feels a touch pro forma that, to inject some thriller trappings, a crucial side plot involves a fairly stereotypical jihadist martyr plotting a terrorist attack on British soil. Radical Islamic terrorism may never go out of style in this genre, granted, and inserting this thread contributes a much-needed ticking clock and climactic action setpiece. But it’s a less-than-imaginative thread, somewhat marring an otherwise solid and engaging tale of espionage from one of the field’s best scribes.

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