Book Reviews
3:19 pm
Thu August 7, 2014

The Dangerous Private Lives Of Spies In 'A Colder War'

Originally published on Thu August 28, 2014 5:43 pm

With half a dozen novels to his credit, British spy writer Charles Cumming has a growing reputation as the heir to the John Le Carre tradition in British fiction. His latest, A Colder War, shows us why.

Thomas Kell is a British intelligence officer who took the fall for a disastrous turn of events in Afghanistan after Sept. 11. He's living in what a former colleague described as "the 'no-man's land' of early middle-age, in the wake of a job which had imploded and a marriage which had failed." As the novel opens, the head of British Intelligence — the first female spy chief in England's history, calls Kell back from professional limbo. "M," as she's known, charges him with investigating the suspicious death of the head of Britain's spy operations in Istanbul, who also happens to have been her long-time lover.

Things get even more complicated when Kell falls madly in love with the brilliant and beautiful Rachel, daughter of the dead agent and some years his junior. And then there's the presence in Turkey of a super-charming and ambitious CIA dude who also takes a liking to Rachel. It all piles up — deaths that may be murder, love affairs hot and cold, the anxiety of discerning facts from cover stories — and then, as it turns out, there's a mole in the British system, and possibly the CIA as well. And it seems that finding the mole has something to do with solving the mystery of Rachel's father's death.

"A mole," Cumming writes, is "the secret state's profoundest fear, the paranoid nightmare of its guarded and cautious inhabitants." We meet the Russian agent who's running the mole long before we discover the identity of the actual traitor, and along with Kell we move from one layer of knowledge to another and another before something like the truth emerges. I don't want to offer up any spoilers. So I hope you'll trust me when I say that few other spy novels in recent years give the reader such a deep sense of the intimate links between the intensity and intricacies of agents' private lives in relation to the dangers of their missions.

I can testify that I lived the agony of Kell's personal hell, along with his life on the hunt for the traitor, in this story populated by smart and dangerous operatives in exotic settings. Cumming has charged the last hundred pages with so much danger and duplicity that I could scarcely bear to read them all in one sitting — but I still found myself compelled to do it.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The British spy writer Charles Cumming has half-a-dozen novels to his credit. And he has a growing reputation as the heir to the John le Carre tradition of British fiction. Our reviewer Alan Cheuse says Cumming's latest novel, "A Colder War," shows why.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Thomas Kell is a British intelligence officer who took the fall for a disastrous turn of events in post-9/11 Afghanistan. He's living, as we hear, in what a former colleague described as the no man's land of early middle-age in the wake of a job which had imploded and a marriage which had failed. As the novel opens, the head of British intelligence calls Kell back from professional limbo, charges him with investigating the suspicious death of the head of Britain's spy operations in Istanbul, who also happens to have been her longtime lover. Things get even more complicated when Kell falls madly in love with the brilliant and beautiful Rachel, the daughter of the dead spy, some years his junior. The trail to the solution of Rachel's father's death gets muddied even more by the presence in Turkey of a super charming and ambitious CIA dude who takes a liking to her. All this piles up - deaths that may be murder, love affairs - hot and cold. And then as it turns out, there is a mole in the British system and possibly the CIA as well. A mole, we hear, is the secret state's profoundest fear - the paranoid nightmare of his guarded and cautious inhabitants. We meet the Russian agent in charge of them all long before we discover the identity of the actual traitor. And along with Kell, we move from one layer of knowledge to another and another before something like the truth emerges. I live that agony of life on the hunt for the traitor along with Kell in this story, populated by smart and dangerous operatives and exotic settings, with the last 100 pages or so so charged with danger and conspiracy that I could scarcely bear to read them.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: The book is "A Colder War" written by Charles Cumming. Alan Cheuse had our review. His most recent book is "An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring And Other Stories." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.