Tag Archives: Secret Intelligence Service

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

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