Talking about recruitment into the British Secret Services (as I was in my previous post), brings me neatly to a certain Charles Cumming – who was approached by MI6 in 1995.  In 1996 he moved to Canada and wrote his first novel based on his experiences. He has now published 3 novels, which are as good as anything I’ve read by John Le Carré.

Spy novel afficionados may have lamented the passing of the Cold War – wondering if the spy novel could survive.  The good news (or is that bad news?) is that there are plenty of shady, murky dealings to inspire those inclined to write about such things and, because the lines of emnity are not so clear these days, it could be argued that the spy novel has transformed into a much subtler, less formulaic beast.

Certainly Charles Cumming’s output is coloured black, white and every shade of grey inbetween. Three novels to date: A Spy By Nature, The Hidden Man and The Spanish Game.  I read the first on a plane and have since listened to novels 2 and 3 in unabridged audio format.

The backdrop of each novel is firmly rooted in our 21st century world:  industrial espionage, the complications surrounding Afghanistan and the Russian mafia,  Basque separatism.  Book 1 introduces us to Alec Milius, early 20’s,  vain, selfish and deceitful.  In a dead end job, craving something more and ripe for recruitment.  He becomes involved in industrial espionage and a sting operation against the CIA.  Yet, as the adrenaline flows, the price exacted on those he loves becomes increasingly high.  The subtlety of this novel is that Milius is not likeable – there’s no principle behind his recruitment – it’s just an ego-trip.  So, it’s all the more surprising that I could sympathise with him by the end of the novel.  If he makes a bed, he certainly has to lie in it …. and that’s what he does in the six years between books 1 and 3.  The Spanish Game finds him lying low in Madrid – six years to ponder the consequences of his actions in book 1 – six years for him to mature as a human being.  Which he has in a way …. albeit not very effectively.  He’s still deceitful – quite willing to indulge in an affair with his boss’s wife … he’s also paranoid but missing the adrenalin rush and the conceit of the spy’s life.  He meets and likes an influential Basque separatist, who not long after goes missing.  And he takes it upon himself to find out what has happened.   This, in turn, leads to his re-recruitment into MI6 or does it?  The plot is fast paced and complex but the strength of this novel for me lies in its unveiling of contemporary Spanish politics and Spain’s dirty wars of both past and present.

 While Milius’s motives centre around his own need for flattery, the spies at the centre of book two have altogether more honourable motives.  The Hidden Man of the title is a former SIS officer, murdered in chapter one by the Russian Mafia.  The intelligence services cynically recruit his two sons to investigate and trap his murderer.  Their characters are diametrically opposed and so much friction is generated as they work, at times with, at others against each other.    And because they are being manipulated, this is a more emotionally engaging read than the Milius novels.

These three novels are good entertaining reads with significant changes of setting and plot.  Cumming’s prose doesn’t yet match the elegance of Le Carré but he is improving.  Having visited Britain, Afghanistan, Russia and Spain, I’m looking forward to the next assignment:  Time February 2008; Place Beijing.

A Spy By Nature
The Hidden Man
The Spanish Game 

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