Novel: A Spy By Nature by Charles Cumming

After a couple of challenging science fiction novels, I was ready for something brisk and intriguing. A Spy By Nature (2001) by Charles Cumming totally fit that bill, a quick-moving and thoroughly enjoyable contemporary espionage tale. In my constant search for new spy novelists to get hooked on, Cumming looks to have jumped up the queue, to a spot just behind John LeCarré and Alan Furst.

A Spy By Nature is the story of Alec Milius, an ambitious young man in London who is looking for more out of life than his dead-end job can provide. His fortunes look to change, though, when a chance acquaintance lines him up with an interview to work for the British Secret Intelligence Service. Milius’ recruitment into the intelligence world takes up the first section of the book, and it’s a stirring, nicely built opening with a real ring of authenticity to it. Milius, a pathological liar, makes for a thoroughly engaging untrustworthy narrator, and his journey through the SIS recruitment process is a satisfying story in itself, but it’s only the beginning. The later sections involve Milius’ participation in an elaborate sting operation against two American oil industry representatives, and these sections are just as entertaining, full of unexpected twists and first-rate espionage paranoia.

Cumming’s writing is transparent, assured, and fast-paced, with an enviable knack for strong characterization. There are no throwaway roles here; everyone who crosses the page is immediately distinctive and memorable. He somehow manages to make Milius sympathetic enough to care about, even as his deplorable behavior mounts, reminding us what the intelligence world is really all about. The build-up of the story is, I think, stronger than the resolution, but the messy wrap-up of the third section is clearly deliberate and on-point, so I found it hard to take issue with. I highly recommend this one to fans of dark, intelligent spy fiction.

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