From 2001 to 2016, the British espionage author Charles Cumming published eight first-rate spy thrillers. They’re all described below, with links to my reviews.
A Spy by Nature (2001)—A worthy spy story that foretells more good reading to come
In Charles Cumming’s first novel, the author tells a version of his own story as a recruit to the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). His protagonist, Alec Milius, is a 24-year-old under-performer in London who devotes three months to testing and interviews preparatory to joining MI6, only to be rejected. The consolation prize is a job as a “support agent,” a species of contractor, who is placed in a British oil company with the assignment to infiltrate its American competitor and feed it disinformation. Read the full review.
The Hidden Man (2003)—A worthy novel of espionage from a latter-day master of the craft
Unlike so many of his competitors in the genre, Cumming’s characters are believable and his plots generally fall somewhere within the bounds of possibility. His flawed heroes, Alec Milius and Thomas Kell, resemble John Le Carre’s George Smiley more closely than James Bond, and their adversaries are real-world spy agencies rather than such fantasies as Spectre. Cumming’s work doesn’t attain the literary heights of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but few writers working today in the genre have mastered the craft as well as he. (Joseph Kanon, Alan Furst, and Olen Steinhauer are among the few I’ve read recently who do so.) Read the full review.
The Spanish Game (2006)—Intrigue and romance in Madrid in the waning days of Basque terrorism
The Trinity Six, one of Charles Cumming’s half-dozen spy novels, is among my favorite espionage tales of recent times. (See below.) The British press compares Cumming to John Le Carre and Len Deighton, and those two stellar examples clearly show why. For my taste, however, The Spanish Game doesn’t quite rise to their level — despite the fact that The Times of London describes it as one of the six finest spy novels of all time. But, after all, The Times is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and why should I believe him? Read the full review.
Typhoon (2008)—A right-wing Washington cabal seeks to destabilize China
“Professor Wang Kaixuan emerged from the waters of the South China Sea shortly before dawn.” So begins this well-constructed tale of high-stakes espionage, betrayal, and unforeseen consequences set in modern-day China. The story revolves around an improbably capable young MI6 agent, his flamboyant CIA counterpart, the young woman they both lust after, and a right-wing Washington cabal and the corporation that does its bidding. The book is well-researched, cogently written, and expertly plotted. If your taste runs to spy thrillers, this is one of the best of recent years. Read the full review.
The Trinity Six (2011)—A stellar new spy story by Charles Cumming
Much of the latter-day literature of espionage is based, directly or indirectly, on the notorious Cambridge Five — young, bright Cambridge men seduced by the lure of Communism as undergraduates during the tumultuous 1930s who spied for the Soviet Union during World War II. Their defection to the USSR following the war created what was arguably the greatest spy scandal in modern history. For many years thereafter, rumors of a “sixth man” continued to roil the waters of the British Secret Intelligence Service. The Trinity Six relates an ingenious story about that sixth man and his longer and even more consequential career. Read the full review.
A Foreign Country: Thomas Kell #1 (2012)—Spies in conflict in contemporary Europe
MI6 agent Thomas Kell has been sacked because of what he believes to be political expediency by the Old Guard now running the shop. Assigned to collaborate with American operatives in Iraq interrogating prisoners, he was forced to take the rap when they turned to torture to extricate information from a British citizen. He has been out of work for months and feeling sorry for himself, “his loyalty to the newly minted high priests of SIS . . . close to nonexistent. ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend,’ he thought, remembering the words of E. M. Forster, ‘I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’ For the first time in his life, that notion made sense to him.” Read the full review.
A Colder War: Thomas Kell #2 (2014)—Spycraft takes center stage in this novel of espionage
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. The author’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 the Tom Kell in this novel 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. Read the full review.
A Divided Spy: Thomas Kell #3 (2017)—The latest from a latter-day John le Carre
Kell at age 46 has left MI6 after a bruising run-in with the bureaucrats who made his life miserable. He is brooding over the murder of his lover, Rachel Wallinger, at the hands of a Russian spy named Alexander Minasian. When Minasian unexpectedly surfaces, Kell resolves to avenge her death. He plans an elaborate entrapment scheme to “turn” Minasian. Meanwhile, a high-profile terrorist plot is unfolding. A young British man who has fought for ISIS in Syria has reentered England on a false passport and is establishing his new identity in the seaside resort of Brighton. Though it may seem unlikely, these two plotlines are destined to intersect. As they do, Kell is tested in ways he has never before been required to face. Read the full review.
The Moroccan Girl by Charles Cumming (2019)—A spy novelist turns to espionage in Charles Cumming’s excellent new novel
Christopher (Kit) Carradine is a moderately successful British spy novelist who takes on a job for MI6 when he is approached on the street. He’s scheduled to speak on a panel at a literary festival in Morocco. There, he’s to pass along an envelope full of cash to one agent and deliver a sealed package to another one—if he can find her. That second agent, it turns out, is the “girl” of the title. Lara Bartok is a Hungarian-born activist associated with Resurrection, an anti-fascist network that has veered from nonviolence into kidnapping, assassination, and suicide bombing. However, before she fled the movement, Bartok was involved in a high-profile kidnapping and is now a wanted criminal. Yet Kit’s handler wants him to help her avoid capture by her pursuers. Read the full review.
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