This review, originally published in Critics at Large, is posted on this site because the novel explores the emotional costs of transgression both for spies and a would-be-terrorist.
|Author Charles Cumming. (Photo: Toby Madden)|
“A part of himself dried up inside. I began to think he had a piece missing from his heart. Call it decency, call it tenderness. Honesty perhaps.”The first epigraph refers to Thomas Kell, an on-and-off MI6 agent, the major protagonist of Charles Cumming’s engrossing trilogy that began with A Foreign Country, followed by A Colder War and the recently published, A Divided Spy (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). The second epigraph is voiced by Alexander Minasian, a senior Russian officer of SVR (foreign intelligence), who played a minor role in A Colder War and is Kell’s principle adversary in the current novel. Kell holds Minasian responsible for the death of his girlfriend and fellow spy, Rachel Wallinger. Despite Kell’s desire for revenge, the two official antagonists have much in common, primarily a capacity for self-reflection and recognition that the price of spying, the burden of emotional baggage, is something they both bear. Kell admits at one point that spying is a “sickness that hallowed him out.” He has given twenty years of his life to the Service that costs him his marriage, his girlfriend and feels a seething anger not only toward the Kremlin but his own agency which betrayed him when they suspended him from duty for his passive involvement in “the aggressive CIA interrogation of a British national in Kabul.” Although Cumming is acutely aware of the personal price of spying, he is not cynical about its value as he was in his early novels when he patterned his fiction on John le Carré. Cumming still regards his mentor in high regards – Kell references his work in Spy – but Cumming is clearly finding his own distinctive voice in the Thomas Kell novels. I should mention that I read Spy prior to reading War, and I realize that although Cumming provides the reader with all the necessary backstory, reporting is not the same as experiencing. I knew that certain events would transpire in War but that knowledge was more than compensated by the pleasure of experiencing its fast-paced narrative about Kell’s search for a mole – perhaps stronger than Spy – and perceptive insights into the professional and personal costs of living a life in the shadows. Yet the novel under review is richly steeped in strengths that will reward the reader.– Charles Cumming, A Colder War
"The constant process of lying, of subterfuge, of concealment and second-guessing is exhausting. It is bad for the soul."– Charles Cumming, A Divided Spy
Among them is Cumming’s nuanced and rounded portrait of the Russian agent Alexander Minasian. Cumming’s narrative lens that tracks the Russian’s spycraft in War is kept at a distance; we experience him only in his capacity as a professional at his work. In Spy we see him close-up as Cumming inhabits his perspective. The author is superb at limning Minasian’s motivations for becoming an officer – he lived through what Russians experienced as the West’s humiliations of Russia during the 1990s after the implosion of the Soviet Union and his subsequent desire to serve and strengthen his country – his gnawing, not-always-articulated doubts about the current direction his country is taking, and above all, his personal vulnerabilities.
Minasian was off the MI6 radar until Harold Mowbray, a private contractor working for the agency, spotted him at a luxury resort in Egypt with another man, somebody with whom he was clearly involved in a sexual relationship, one in which their difficulties were on public display. As Mowbray relays this information to Kell, the retired spy begins formulating a plan to get close to Minasian by using this German named Bernhard Riedle. With the approval of his MI6 handler, Kell sets his plan into motion. Using a veteran spy trick, Kell ingratiates himself with the jilted, angry Riedle while concealing his true identity and motives. Eventually, he gains enough trust from Riedle for the German to ventilate his aggrieved hurts and brewing anger about his tumultuous affair with the Russian spy. Then, suddenly, a murder occurs in London that brings Kell and Minasian into personal contact with each other. At first Kell thinks he can blackmail Minasian into turning him against his superiors and recruiting him. The Brit knows that anyone with his counterpart’s sexual proclivities, and worse, the son-in-law of a powerful oligarch who wants grandchildren, would not be tolerated in Putin’s intelligence services. Kell is wrong as Minasian’s loyalties are deeply entrenched, but he is willing to collaborate on issues of mutual interest such as terrorism without sacrificing his integrity and dignity. (At this point, I was reminded of Trump’s desire to work with Putin under similar conditions, but I am certain that neither of these leaders possess the capacity for self-reflection that Kell and Minasian demonstrate.)
The novel at this point takes a sudden shift in tone and pacing. Kell’s lust for revenge must be put aside when he learns from Minasian about a major terrorist attack that will soon take place in England, something the reader has known since almost the beginning of Spy. A young aggrieved British-born Azhar Ahmed returns home after being radicalized in Syria. He has fully internalized what Maajid Nawazs, in his memoir, has called “the narrative.” He is a soldier in a war on a holy mission that will avenge the Prophet for which he will be eternally rewarded for his martyrdom. He has been instructed to carry out a suicide attack that will inflict massive civilian casualties, and is waiting for the signal. Cumming throws a brilliant curve into this subplot by introducing a young white woman who becomes Ahmed’s girlfriend. This relationship inadvertently subverts the rigidity of his ideological worldview and creates personal confusion in the young man’s mind revealing a vulnerability that will make his task more difficult to execute. Through this device, Cumming demonstrates that powerful personal connections hold the potential for undercutting ideology and the impulse to wreak revenge on one’s enemies. The relationship between the two young people in a sense mirrors that of Kell and Minasian.
The resolution of the terrorist attempt is by no means the culmination of the novel. Kell and Minasian need to resolve their personal issues. Without giving too much away, Cumming provides us with much more than spirited dialogue. Kell is forced to make a choice: let events unfold as they likely will or follow the dictates of his conscience by personally intervening and putting his life at risk. The conclusion is both satisfying and plausible. Cumming leaves open the possibility of a further novel in his Thomas Kell series. If he does write another one, I await it with anticipation.