Tag Archives: MI6

Spies in conflict in contemporary Europe

A review of A Foreign Country, by Charles Cumming

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Although its pace picks up sharply about two-thirds of the way through the book and builds to a crescendo at the end, A Foreign Country is the slowest-paced and most contemplative of Charles Cumming’s spy stories.

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.”

When Kell is called up “out of the cold” by one of the Old Guard to investigate the shocking disappearance of an old friend, SIS Chief-designate Amelia Levene, he is confronted with Forster’s dilemma. He chooses friendship, pursuing Amelia’s trail and keeping his bosses in ignorance. As Kell digs more deeply into the mystery, he comes face to face with a crew of renegade agents of the French secret service (the folks who sank the Rainbow Warrior), with the future of the United Kingdom at stake.

A Foreign Country is a complex tale that interweaves threads of deadly inter-service rivalry and the secrets hidden in Kell’s and Levene’s past. Both characters are fully realized, warts and all, and their stories unfold against a thoroughly credible backdrop of intrigue in contemporary Europe and North Africa.

A Foreign Country is the sixth spy novel Charles Cumming has written since 2001. In this blog I have previously reviewed A Spy by Nature (the first of the six),  The Spanish Game, The Trinity Six, and Typhoon. (Links will take you to those reviews.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers, Spy Stories

Intrigue and romance in Madrid in the waning days of Basque terrorism

A review of The Spanish Game, by Charles Cumming

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Typhoon and The Trinity Six, two of Charles Cumming’s half-dozen spy novels, are among my favorite espionage tales of recent times. 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, hell, The Times is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and what does he know?

Sadly, The Spanish Game could well have been a superb book had Cumming not chosen to devote the first third of the text to the moping, self-pitying ruminations of his anti-hero, Alec Milius. The novel is essentially a sequel to Cumming’s first book, A Spy by Nature, in which Alec is recruited by MI6 for a special assignment with MI5. Now, it has been six years since Alec fled London in the aftermath of that assignment, a bungled industrial espionage job. He is now living in Madrid in fear of retaliation by the CIA, which he duped on orders from his masters in the Secret Intelligence Service. For godknowsshowmanypages Alec tortures himself with paranoid fears of assassination by the CIA officers whose careers he upended.

However, once the story gets going, Alec’s paranoia recedes into the background in the face of genuine peril, and the pace picks up, The Spanish Game becomes an outstanding story. It features as many twists and turns and surprises as the best of them, once the cast of characters starts filling out: Alec’s boss at the private British bank where he is employed; the boss’s wife, with whom he is conducting a torrid affair; a Basque independence advocate whom Alec interviews and befriends in the course of his work; an officer of MI6, who recruits him to uncover a plot within the Spanish government to kill off Basque (ETA) terrorists with murderers-for-hire; and a dogged reporter for a left-leaning Basque newspaper. If this all sounds complicated, it is. The interaction of these fascinating characters is wondrous to watch.

1 Comment

Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers, Spy Stories

A worthy spy story that foretells more good reading to come

 A review of A Spy by Nature, by Charles Cumming

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A Spy by Nature, Charles Cumming’s first novel, is the semi-autobiographical precursor several subsequent espionage stories that have caught the attention of reviewers and the reading public alike. The Trinity Six, the most recent, was a deft and ingenious reimagining of the familiar story of the five aristocratic Cambridge graduates whose greatest fame came when they defected to the Soviet Union after many years of undercover work in Britain.

In A Spy by Nature, Cumming 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 underperformer 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.

As Alec’s story unfolds, he finds himself more and more deeply enmeshed in a web of distrust and betrayal that brings out the worst in him — and generates tragic consequences. Cumming’s portrayal of his alter ego is utterly convincing, and the story brings to light an increasingly important aspect of latter-day espionage in the post-Cold War Era: industrial espionage.

A Spy by Nature is an entirely worthy antecedent of Cumming’s later, more fully realized spy stories.


Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers, Spy Stories

A stellar new spy story

A review of The Trinty Six, by Charles Cumming

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

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.

The protagonist of this tightly written novel is an English scholar of Soviet and modern Russian history named Sam Gaddis. Heavily in debt and under pressure from his ex-wife for more money to support their daughter, Gaddis finds himself facing what seems the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to learn the truth about the sixth man and publish a best-seller that will cure his financial troubles once and for all. The problem is, nearly everyone Sam talks to ends up dead — and Sam soon finds himself in desperate flight from their killers.

The Trinity Six abounds with tension and offers up enough surprises along the way to satisfy a jaded reader of genre fiction. However, like most other spy stories, this book raises a familiar question: why are all the women beautiful? Surely, any Hollywood producer willing to option the novel for the screen could cast the film version any way he wishes!

The Trinity Six is the fourth of Charles Cumming’s spy novels. The first, A Spy by Nature, loosely based on his recruitment by MI6, appeared in 2001.


Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers, Spy Stories

The spy who never left the cold

A review of Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carre

@@@ (3 out of 5)

David John Moore Cornwell–the man the world has come to know as John le Carre–was the son of a con man and a mother he met only at age 21. He spent years in the 1950s and 1960s working for MI5 and MI6 in the most difficult years of the Cold War. His frequently troubled life experiences afforded him the real-world experience that lent such authenticity and depth to the Cold War espionage novels he wrote so ably in the decades to come.

Le Carre’s conflicted alter ego, George Smiley, the protagonist of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and other early le Carre novels, embodied the inner doubts of that seemingly simpler time that foreshadowed the distrust and insecurities of the 60s and 70s, once we had lost our faith in the institutions that dominated our world.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, le Carre skillfully adapted, turning to writing about the more complex, multipolar world that has become ever more familiar to us. His field of battle was still espionage. But his subtext, increasingly, was politics–politics on the grand, international scale. Le Carre’s profound distaste for U.S. interventionist policies emerged clearly. Similarly, he showed his hand (most dramatically in The Constant Gardener) for the large, multinational corporations that have come to overshadow the lives we lead. His characters still emerged as fully formed human beings, for the most part. But his writing took on a moralistic tone that some readers found objectionable.

Le Carre’s latest work, Our Kind of Traitor, bears a stronger thematic resemblance to the Smiley novels than most of his other recent books. The protagonist–a young, unmarried English couple, actually–found themselves mysteriously caught up in a bizarre espionage caper more complex than any George Smiley might have conjured up. The story revolves around a Russian mafia boss (who proudly calls himself the world’s “number one money-launderer”) and the attempts of a renegade in the English secret service to bring him and his family to asylum in Britain. In the renegade agent’s bruising battles with the powers that be to gain the authority for his plan, and in the doubts and recriminations of the young couple he has dragged into the action, there is much that’s reminiscent of Smiley’s tortured qualms about the moral implications of his work. Four decades later, MI6 is a different beast, of course–a shadow of its former self, sometimes struggling to justify its existence. But Our Kind of Traitor awakens the same sort of moral ambiguity and distrust for authority and convention as did The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

ASIN: B00452V36Y

ISBN-10: 0670022241

ISBN-13: 978-0670022243

Leave a comment

Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers, Spy Stories

Long Time Coming, by Robert Goddard

A review of Long Time Coming, by Robert Goddard

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Robert Goddard writes suspenseful novels that typically span many years in British history and demonstrate graphically the unforeseen consequences of long-ago acts. Long Time Coming is one of the 20 books he has written since the early 90s and one of 12 now available for the Kindle. I acquired an addiction for Goddard’s work six or eight books ago and grab every new entry on the list as soon as it’s available.

Each of Goddard’s mystery novels is a standalone story. There are virtually no reappearing characters, much less a series hero. Another of the hallmarks of Goddard’s writing is his mastery of complex plotting. His books are full of complications, setbacks, and surprises, and Long Time Coming is no exception.

In Long Time Coming, the story is rooted in the legendarily brutal Belgian empire in the Congo in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  But the action shifts back and forth from England to Ireland to Belgium, with episodes alternating from 1976 to 1940 and back again at regular intervals and concluding with shorter scenes in 1922 and 2008.

Long Time Coming tells the tale of Stephen Swan, a young English geologist relocated in 1976 to his home after a stint in the Texas oilfields, and his uncle, Eldritch Swan, who has suddenly appeared in Stephen’s life after 36 years in an Irish prison. Stephen’s parents had always told him his father’s brother had died in the Blitz, but Eldritch, to the young man’s chagrin, is very much alive. And he proceeds to involve his nephew in a perilous chase through London, Dublin, and Antwerp in search of proof that he was innocent of the charge that confined him to prison for more than a third of a century.

Along the way we meet a crooked Antwerp diamond merchant and his beautiful young granddaughter, an IRA terrorist with a world-class talent at forging art, a priceless collection of Picassos, a ruthless and venal former MI6 operative now living the life of a rural squire, and an assortment of police officers, secret service agents, and lawyers in England, Ireland, and Belgium.

Long Time Coming is no mere whodunit but a genuine novel of suspense, peopled by three-dimensional characters living in a moral universe painted in shades of gray.

ISBN-10: 0385343612

ISBN-13: 978-0385343619

1 Comment

Filed under Crime Novels, Mysteries & Thrillers

Typhoon, by Charles Cumming

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

“Professor Wang Kaixuan emerged from the waters of the South China Sea shortly before dawn,” and 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. Cumming is sometimes referred to as the successor to John Le Carre, but I’d like to see him write about a more believable protagonist before I go along with that judgment.

ISBN-10: 031255852X

ISBN-13: 978-0312558529



Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers, Spy Stories