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A Spy by Nature Paperback – 2002

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Product details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; New Ed edition (2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140294767
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140294767
  • Product Dimensions: 11.4 x 3.5 x 18.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (149 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 667,030 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Charles Cumming is a British writer of spy fiction. He was educated at Eton College (1985-1989) and the University of Edinburgh (1990-1994), where he graduated with 1st Class Honours in English Literature. The Observer has described him as "the best of the new generation of British spy writers who are taking over where John le Carré and Len Deighton left off".

In 1995, Charles Cumming was approached for recruitment by the United Kingdom's Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). A Spy By Nature, a novel partly based on his experiences with MI6, was published in 2001. The novel's hero, Alec Milius, is a flawed loner in his early 20s who is recruited by MI6 to sell doctored research data on oil exploration in the Caspian Sea to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

In 2001, Charles Cumming moved to Madrid. His second novel, The Hidden Man (2003), tells the story of two brothers investigating the murder of their father, a former SIS officer, at the hands of the Russian mafia. The Hidden Man also examines the clandestine role played by SIS and the CIA during the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Charles Cumming's third novel, The Spanish Game (2006), marks the return of anti-hero Alec Milius, who becomes involved in a plot by the paramilitary Basque nationalist organization ETA to bring down the Spanish government. The Spanish Game was described by The Times as one of the six finest spy novels of all time, alongside Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Funeral in Berlin and The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Typhoon, published in 2008, is a political thriller about a CIA plot to destabilise China on the eve of the Beijing Olympics. The story spans the decade from the transfer of the sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997 to present-day Shanghai. In particular, the author highlights the plight of the Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang, a semi-autonomous region of The People's Republic of China. The acclaimed novelist William Boyd described Typhoon as "a wholly compelling and sophisticated spy novel - vivid and disturbing - immaculately researched and full of harrowing contemporary relevance."

In March 2008, Charles Cumming published an interactive online story, The 21 Steps, as part of a Penguin We Tell Stories project. Readers follow the protagonist's travels through Google Maps. Cumming's novels have been translated into six languages. His work is published in the United States by St Martin's Press. In 2009, Cumming left Penguin to join Harper Collins. His fifth novel, The Trinity Six, a thriller about the Cambridge spies, will be published in February 2011.

Product Description

Review

'A gripping tale of international espionage.' -- Financial News

'An intense study of the world of espionage. Cumming ventures calmly and collectedly into the spy's psyche.' -- Daily Mirror

'Gripping, exciting and deftly plotted...a book one would be seriously annoyed to put down.' -- Sunday Telegraph

'Plotting both plausible and persuasive, with horrors which mount stealthily behind a veneer of seemingly straightforward cloak-and-dagger games. Don't miss.' -- Literary Review

'Tautly written and believable...a complex tale of code words, betrayal of frienship, bluff and counterbluff...Cumming writes it like it is.' -- Mail on Sunday

About the Author

Charles Cumming was born in Scotland in 1971. Author of the bestselling thrillers A Spy by Nature, The Hidden Man and most recently The Spanish Game.

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Customer Reviews

3.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Michael Hands on 16 Feb. 2006
Format: Paperback
I bought A Spy By Nature after loving The Spanish Game and wanting to know how exactly Alec Milius came to be living in Madrid. The events are paraphrased in Spanish Game, but all the detail is here! It's fascinating to see what sort of character Alec Milius was in his mid-twenties. much more cocksure, amoral, greedy and ambitious; it made me realise what a subtle job Cumming had done in the second book, ageing and maturing his hero. Spy By Nature isn't as clean and well strcutured as The Spanish Game but as a pyschological study of what happens to someone working in the spy business it's probably the best book of its kind that I've ever read. Strongly recommended.
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45 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Donaldo on 22 Feb. 2007
Format: Paperback
There are a lot of plaudits surrounding Charles Cumming at the moment, being hailed as the latest British spy novelist carrying forward the tradition shaped by greats such as Graham Greene, John le Carre and Len Deighton. In terms of a first spy novel, this is not of the calibre of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but there's enough promise in it to make you realise this is not your average thriller. Most writers of spy thrillers can be smart, clever and engaging (current examples such as Tom Bradby, Henry Porter), but few are able to really get to grips with the moral ambiguity of the world of espionage. As you read A Spy by Nature though, you can tell the difference. It reeks of moral ambiguity.

Much of it lies in the creation of the novel's anti-hero, Alec Milius. He is a fantastically flawed character; a man who is able to lie and talk his way out of any situation, amoral, and comfortable leading the double life of a spy. However, he is also greedy, ambitious, and is not good at telling himself to quit while he is ahead. Alec Milius has much in common with Patricia Highsmith's similar creation of Thomas Ripley - you get that same buzz reading Alec Milius trying to charm his way out of very sticky situations. As with Thomas Ripley, the trick Charles Cumming uses is to make Alec Milius normal enough that you relate to him. His frustrations are that of most young men; a feeling of unfulfilled potential, an ambition to do better, a certain brashness indicating a lack of maturity. It's very convincing. Without the flawed Alec Milius, this would be another run-of-the-mill thriller. Most spy thriller writers (excepting Greene, Le Carre and Deighton) make the mistake of making the main character un upstanding super-man, so thank goodness Charles Cumming resisted this.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Cultural Rob on 9 Jun. 2008
Format: Paperback
The spy novel has always, to me, demanded a higher calling of prose than the traditional thriller. That higher plane of reasoning, above squeamishness, emotion and moral relativity, all that great game stuff - it's the SAS to Tom Clancy's reliable GI. Of the current generation of spy novelists it's hard to pick a winner. Henry Porter is unimpeachable on detail and realism but cannot apparently write an action sequence to save his noble Blair-bothering life. David Wolstencroft is at heart a scriptwriter and his books read like treatments. And Charles Cumming: perhaps the only British writer yet to equal the authority of American spy novelists such as David Ignatius and Olen Steinhauer. Others have noted flaws: his character Alec is full of weaknesses, secondary characters appear in detail and are then consigned to fates we the reader shall apparently never know, the ending has all the resolution of Sopranos's famous black out... the fact that a sequel exists may or may not make this forgivable but Cummings' skill is give to place inside the mind of a serial deceiver in a minute-by -minute sense. Yes, there is a sense that much of what's here is fleshing out a fairly straightforward and basic plot but at the same time, reading those sequences is gripping - it's only afterwards you realize that much of the significant details and observations are in fact insignificant red herrings that provide merely colour and character. A meeting in a restaurant takes up 40 odd pages for example - good prose but at the end of which you'll think `well so what?' Much later of course, you might think of Fortner's petulant outburst over his mint choc chip in a different light...
Cumming gives us an assured and interesting introduction to the Alec Milius story though readers may bear in mind is like a Chinese meal: it takes ages to prepare, goes down pretty quickly and you're hungry again half an hour later. But that doesn't mean it didn't taste great.
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38 of 42 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 9 Jun. 2005
Format: Paperback
This young author's entry into the well-explored MI5 / SIS genre is enjoyable but unsatisfying. Protagonist Alec Milius stumbles into corporate espionage because it seems like an adventurous alternative to his going-nowhere-fast proto-adult life. The bulk of the book suspensefully describes his descent into an isolated world of lies. While I saw certain plot developments coming hundreds of pages before Alec did, I kept reading for the deftly portrayed characters and thrillingly claustrophobic atmosphere. Eventually, Alec's undiminished love for an ex-girlfriend ends up costing him everything. Cumming convincingly portrays Alec's lonely existence, complete with realistic details of tradecraft and minor characters. However, "A Spy By Nature" has major structural problems. It feels as if the author completely revised the plot about a hundred pages in. Those first hundred or so pages (before Alec gets involved in corporate espionage) introduce us at considerable length to Alec's fellow interviewees at MI5. All of them are fascinating characters, and all but one of them promptly vanish, never to be referred to again. The plot then takes off in a completely new direction. Another and more serious flaw is that Alec's ex-girlfriend, who involuntarily brings about his downfall, doesn't appear once until about page 400, when it's finally time for her to walk across the stage, holding up a sign that says "Hero's Achilles Heel," and vanish again. All in all, this book was readable thanks to its pacy prose and snappy dialogue, but Cumming needs to work on organizing his material.
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