Author Charles Cumming Ponders The Seductions — And The Sins — Of Spying

Charles Cumming's latest book is A Colder War. i i

Charles Cumming's latest book is A Colder War. Jonathan Ring hide caption

itoggle caption Jonathan Ring
Charles Cumming's latest book is A Colder War.

Charles Cumming's latest book is A Colder War.

Jonathan Ring

If you were making a movie about the world of British espionage, you'd want to cast someone like Charles Cumming as your undercover agent. He's tall and handsome and self-assured and utterly charming in that self-deprecating British way. You can imagine him effortlessly gliding through the small talk of embassy parties or sweeping a gullible female officer off her feet — in service of queen and country, of course. In other words, it's easy to be seduced by him.

And seduction is what it's all about, according to Cumming — who is, in fact, a best-selling author of spy novels. "Spying is about relationships, and spying is about persuading people to do what you want them to do — and that is not so far removed from a romantic relationship."

Cumming was actually approached to join the British intelligence services after he graduated from university. A friend of the family suggested he might want to explore joining the "diplomatic" service, a delicate euphemism for the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. He went through the early stages of application — and that experience inspired A Spy By Nature, which follows young recruit Alec Milius as he learns that while deception is necessary in the complex world of espionage, self-deception is something else entirely.

Cumming's new novel, A Colder War, stars Thomas Kell, an unjustly disgraced MI6 agent called in from the cold to investigate the death of a seasoned officer in an apparent accident. It's got the requisite action scenes, exotic locales and intricate spycraft, but it's what you might call "thinky" — light on the kind of derring-do found in a standard spy novel. "It's derring-don't," he laughs.

And in a way, he's right. Cumming is more concerned with the moral quandaries inherent in espionage. "I don't think spies think of themselves as liars. I think they think of themselves as patriots, and as a necessary evil, if you like, because by lying it's a means to an end — they are trying to save lives or protect people or gather intelligence."

Cumming has been hailed as a worthy successor to John le Carré, and it's clear the great British spy novelist has had quite an influence on his approach to his craft. "There is a demand that American readers have for spies to be heroic," Cumming says, "to not have all of the gray areas that we explore on this side of the Atlantic. ... Here, we're all sort of George Smiley and self-doubt, and self-pity, even." George Smiley, being, of course, the mild-mannered and morally conflicted hero of many le Carré books.

Kell is no George Smiley, but he's a sympathetic character, someone the average reader can identify with even if the average reader is not, in fact, a spy. He's middle-aged, with a failed marriage under his belt and a thoroughly stalled career. Despite that, Cumming also knows that the average parts of a spy's life can make for tedious reading. "If I was true to the operational day-to-day teamwork of tracking some brainwashed mad mullah in Derbyshire, the reader would get very bored very quickly, because as le Carré pointed out — and Tom Kell is fond of quoting — spying is waiting."

So Cumming includes the thrills — because an espionage thriller must thrill — but what really appeals to him is making room for depth and development of characters. "I don't really think of myself as a spy novelist," he says. "I just think of myself as a novelist who writes about spies, because by writing about spies I can get into all sorts of things about human behavior and relationships and ambition and frailty that the genre affords."

Madhulika Sikka is executive editor of NPR News, and an unabashed fan of espionage thrillers.

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