Methodology takes center stage in "A Colder War," a book about spycraft

Charles Cumming has been hailed by some reviewers as a worthy successor to the dean of spy novelists, John Le Carre. He’s good, he understands spycraft, and occasionally he’s almost great. But I wouldn’t go that far.

In Cumming’s most recent outing in the realm of suspense, A Colder War, Cumming’s protagonist, MI6 agent Thomas Kell, is called out of the cool (it would be too much to call his sidelining from his agency “the cold”) on a new assignment. In a previous episode (A Foreign Country), Kell had rescued the kidnapped secret son of the woman then designated to take up the mantle of “C” as the head of MI6. Now “C” calls on him to investigate the questionable death of an old friend (and C’s lover), Paul Wallinger, who was serving as Head of Station in the espionage hotspot of Istanbul. The complex tale that unfolds involves Wallinger’s daughter, a mole in the CIA, a Turkish journalist, and a Russian spymaster for the SVR, the KGB’s successor, based in Kiev.

Cumming’s research shows in this book about spycraft

What is most distinctive about A Colder War is not the plotting, which is remarkably straightforward, but Cumming’s detailed descriptions of spycraft. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the CIA, MI6, and other agencies were to assign this novel to trainees as an introduction to the ins and outs of spycraft. After all, Cumming’s early novels of espionage were partially autobiographical.

A Colder War (Thomas Kell #2) by Charles Cumming (2014) 397 pages ★★★★☆

No signs of SMERSH, but too many bows to Hollywood

There are glimmers of brilliance in this book. Cumming’s knowledge of tradecraft appears credible and Tom Kell displays some of the wrinkles and nuances of George Smiley, but virtually every female character is more beautiful than the last — a nod to Hollywood, no doubt — so that Kell comes across a little too much like James Bond for my taste. Fortunately, there are no signs of SMERSH or Dr. No or the contemporary nonsense featured in the bestselling novels of Daniel Silva.

A Colder War is the sixth of Charles Cumming’s spy novels I’ve read and reviewed to date. The others are Typhoon, A Foreign Country, The Spanish Game, A Spy by Nature, and The Trinity Six. A seventh book is due in 2015.

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