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A Colder War, by Charles Cumming - review

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

A Colder War Charles Cumming

Harper Collins, pp.400, £12.99

The title of Charles Cumming’s seventh novel is both a nod to the comfortable polarities of Cold War and also a reminder that our modern world is in some ways even chillier and less stable than the one it replaced. Once again, the central character is Thomas Kell, the MI6 agent who was trying to claw his way back from unmerited disgrace in Cumming’s previous novel, A Foreign Country.

Even now, Kell is still on unpaid leave — which, though tiresome for him, is convenient for Amelia, the current ‘C’. They are old colleagues and, up to a point, friends, and she knows him for what he is: a fine intelligence officer caught between his own demons and the shifting, often ruthless expedients of his job. Their profession exacts a private price on them both, which in Kell’s case includes a 30-a-day cigarette habit and a painfully shambolic love life.


The story is triggered by the unexplained death in a plane crash of a colleague — Paul Wallinger, Kell’s friend and Amelia’s sometime lover. It’s the culmination of a series of botched MI6 operations in the Middle East, which suggests that the security of its Turkish stations have been badly compromised. Temporarily rehabilitated, Kell is despatched to Ankara and Istanbul to investigate Wallinger’s death and, in the process, discover the source of the leaks.

In other words we are in the familiar territory of the mole-hunt, albeit one with a distinctly contemporary twist. The CIA agent who was responsible for Kell’s disgrace is also in Turkey. It’s clear from the start that the Americans aren’t to be trusted, and nor is anyone else. The SVR, the Russian foreign intelligence service, is active in the region. Wallinger had secrets of his own, including a lover who is working for the Hungarian secret service. Soon there’s a personal element to complicate Kell’s job still further: he falls for Rachel, Wallinger’s lovely daughter, in a big way.

On one level, the novel manages the traditional trappings of the genre very well. The atmosphere is febrile and brooding, with sudden, shocking spurts of violence. There’s a large cast of characters, described with a journalist’s eye for the telling detail. Cumming contrives to give a plausible impression of the routines and jargon of the intelligence community. Similarly, he knows the value of brand names to lend authenticity, just as Ian Fleming did, and uses them liberally. The narrative is anchored in the today’s world — or rather the world as it was in last year’s news stories. You never quite know where the next chapter will take you, from the neighbourhood of Mount Ararat to Cumbria, from Chios to Odessa.

But Cumming is also doing something else. He’s using the spy novel to analyse the mechanics of treachery and to reflect on the flawed logic of those who betray for ideological reasons. A Colder War is more than an excellent thriller: it is also a novel that forces us to look behind the headlines and question some of our own comfortable assumptions.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £10.99. Tel: 08430 600033


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