A COLDER WAR BY CHARLES CUMMING

by evseymour

What’s the appeal of spy fiction? You’re plunged into an unknowable and alien world in which characters speak another language of codenames and cryptic vocabulary, the old boy network is seen to be alive and kicking, and pace is often tortuously slow.

And yet my superficial description disguises the truth and does the genre a grave disservice for what could be more thrilling than journeying through the world’s clandestine hot spots, being immersed in tradecraft and secret assignations, where the stakes for national security could not be higher, and the slow pace that I referred to is more akin to the building beat you find in a mellow piece of jazz before the saxophonist delivers a blistering solo?

Charles Cumming’s novel, ‘A Colder War,’ ticks all the above boxes in a ‘tell it as it is’ tale of espionage that is bang up to the minute. His main character, disgraced Thomas Kell, a fall guy and witness to an act of extraordinary rendition, is tempted back into the game by the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Amelia Levine, when the head of station in Turkey is killed. Both Levine and Kell suspect their man, a serial womaniser, was assassinated and it’s Kell’s task to discover the truth. It’s not long before Kell makes a stunning discovery: a traitor is in their midst.

You are left in no doubt that Cumming knows his stuff, which is unsurprising as MI6 approached him for recruitment in 1995. The novel is jam-packed with tradecraft.   Thomas Kell is no ‘techno-spook’. He’s that strange, complex alchemy of circumspection, cold detachment and ultra competitiveness that carve him out as the classic spy, yet he’s also flesh and blood and a man of concealed passion.

A ‘mole’ in the camp has overtones of Le Carre’s ‘Tinker, Tailor…’ and the occasionally bleak tone more reminiscent of the very best of Gerald Seymour’s spy thrillers. But Cumming’s novel is no pale imitation. Rich with memorable characters, the story oozes style and authenticity. The scene in which a surveillance team spring into action is superb, as is the ‘take-down’ in (where else?) Odessa.

Necessary attributes for an effective spy are empathy and a firm grasp of human psychology. They’re also key skills for a writer. Cumming has both in spades. Certain to satisfy seasoned spy readers while attracting new converts to the genre, ‘A Colder War’ is truly in a league of its own. Fabulous.

A Colder War is published by Harper Collins.

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