Cover image of "The Hidden Man," a book by a latter-day master of the spy genre

If you look for the best contemporary spy novels, you’ve probably come across the work of Charles Cumming, a latter-day master of the trade. His books, including The Trinity Six, A Spy by Nature, Typhoon, A Colder War, and A Foreign Country represent some of the best espionage fiction to be published in recent years.

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 and Olen Steinhauer are among the few I’ve read recently.)

The Hidden Man by Charles Cumming (2015) 370 pages ★★★★☆

In The Hidden Man, Cumming tells the story of two English brothers, Thomas and Benjamin Keen. Thomas, a bachelor and the older of the two, is a top executive in a fast-growing company that builds and runs nightclubs around the world; Benjamin is a  painter who does not like to be called an “artist.” (Yes, he’s a difficult person.) Their well-born father, Christopher, formerly of MI6, is working in London for a private sector corporate intelligence firm when he is murdered in his flat by an unknown assailant.

Thomas is recruited by MI5 to spy on the shady goings-on at his nightclub company on the pretext that his efforts will help find his father’s murderer. Soon, MI6 and the CIA get into the act, Thomas draws his brother into the case, and complications ensue, with the three agencies undermining one another’s activities. Along the way we learn about the complex, three-way relationship among the two brothers and their father and gain an inside look at Western intelligence work in Afghanistan during the years of the Soviet occupation. With conflicting accounts about the past coming to light, the truth is difficult to unravel. The novel is suspenseful to the end.

Cumming began writing The Hidden Man in 2001 — before 9/11, years before Google and Facebook became household names. (Google was founded in 1998, and Facebook wasn’t even launched until 2004.) In an Author’s Note to the belated U.S. edition, he calls it his “difficult” second novel — difficult, perhaps, because any novelist attempting to follow a successful first novel (A Spy by Nature) is likely to struggle. Despite the long delay in its American publication, The Hidden Man is a worthy addition to Cumming’s portfolio.

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

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