Cover image of "A Divided Spy" by Charles Cumming, a latter-day John le Carre

The British espionage novelist Charles Cumming is sometimes compared to John le Carre, who is 40 years older. Le Carre writes in the same genre but is celebrated as the author of several novels regarded as among the best ever written. I’m usually suspicious of such analogies. But this one is apt. Cumming’s protagonist Thomas Kell brings to mind the jaded George Smiley of le Carre’s early spy novels. Both constantly wrestle with moral questions and frequently reflect that the difference between MI6 and its Russian counterparts is fuzzy at best. And both are deeply skeptical of the importance or effectiveness of their efforts.

As Kell reflects in A Divided Spy, “In his twenty-year career in the secret world, Kell—in common with many of his colleagues—had developed a theory that most of the Service’s greatest successes had come about, in part, because of cock-up and human error. He had never been a believer in perfect plans and immaculate conspiracies.”

A Divided Spy (Thomas Kell #3) by Charles Cumming (2017) 367 pages ★★★★★ 

Cumming describes his protagonist as a man with “a facility for deceit and manipulation [that] was as much a part of Kell’s character as his decency and capacity for love.” And Kell’s Russian counterpart notes that “[t]he constant process of lying, of subterfuge, of concealment and second-guess, is exhausting. It is bad for the soul.”

In A Divided Spy, 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. This plan brings Kell into conflict with Amelia Levene, an old friend who is the Director General of MI6.

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.

Like le Carre, Cumming grounds his tales in the realities of spycraft. Just as CIA officers were said to devour the George Smiley novels, I imagine that operatives for both the CIA and MI6 are reading the saga of Thomas Kell. Or perhaps they should be.

A Divided Spy is the third book in Charles Cumming’s compelling series of espionage novels featuring MI6 officer Thomas Kell. It may be the last.

This is just one of Charles Cumming’s first-rate spy thrillers.

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