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on 16 February 2006
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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on 22 February 2007
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.

I won't mention the plot in any detail, as other reviewers have already done this. There are some criticisms of this book by some of the other reviewers, some which are I think justified. The book does seem to come in two clear parts - the first part the MI6 recruitment, the second the MI5 industrial espionage shenanigans. The reviewer mentioning the ex-girlfriend as the blindingly obvious `Achilles heel' is also right - it's a little bit obvious, but somehow underplayed as well. I got the impression that Charles Cumming wasn't too sure how to finish the book.

But I think the plusses easily outweigh the minuses. And it's tantalising to read an author who truly understands that great spy fiction relies on moral ambiguity, not just a snappy plot to tell the story.
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on 9 June 2008
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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on 9 June 2005
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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on 17 May 2013
Well, it's not Le Carré, that's for sure. Marginally diverting, with an accurate description of the Civil Service Selection Board (CSSB or sisby as he calls it) procedure. But the plot moves slowly, so slowly in parts that you begin to lose enthusiasm for continuing. His later novels are better.
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on 31 July 2014
I bought this book after reading other books by Charles Cumming. I cannot believe that this book is written by the same author, is it? I am over half way through the book and still haven't got the plot yet. If I don't give up reading this I may well have to give up living. Terrible book, main character is a bore and is made more boring by the tedious writing. It is almost at teenage level, although it may well put teenagers off reading altogether. Very dissapointed.
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A spy by nature was a really authentic read, and I would imagine that’s an obvious statement given that the author went through the initial selection phase. What was so surprising though was his grasp of time and the way the various roles and ways of working were played out in his book in a very authentic way. He either has had conversations with people who have been through the system or he has made some rather well guessed leaps and deductions around how things work. It’s nice to see he didn’t fall for the James Bond, gadgets, money and girls fantasy but kept the whole story very grounded. One thing the author might want to consider is the other avenues of entry in 5 and 6 and some of their less known cousins. Military intelligence from the Army, Navy and Air force all select from their young candidates going through the training establishments. One of the pluses from recruiting from this pool is you have all the stats, tests, personality profiles, loyalty, and screening in a lot of cases and finally the ability to take them out of their training courses during dead time to check aptitudes etc. These selections and training often mean they can be actively involved in this level of work and when they finally leave the services make for perfect civilian resources. I’d like to see the author develop Alec a little more and give consideration to involving other characters who become more significant. Like Saul. 
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on 24 April 2013
I'd read the Trinity Six and although I thought it was a reasonably competent book I wasn't that impressed. But A Spy By Nature is in a completely different league. In fact I had to check it was by the same author! This is a really well written book and it's not wrong for critics to compare it to an early John le Carre. Cumming takes some time to set the scene but this is not an action filled book. It is a subtle spy thriller. This is about a novice who is a wannabe agent way in over his head. It's actually a very simple book which if the great JLC had written it would be extremely complex and just as rewarding. You're certainly kept on the edge of your seat right up to the end. And the end? Was it a bit of letdown? I won't let the cat out of the bag.
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on 2 December 2012
The first section was good - building up interesting characters and describing the selection process for SIS -all of which are never to be mentioned again -and seem to have no bearing or relevance to the rest of the book.

Suddenly the story switches to a year later - where we are introduced to characters that we have never met - but are referred to in a way that pre supposes the reader has a knowledge of and of their relationship with each other - like a chapter has been missed out.

The author seems to change his style of writing quite considerably after part one - almost like it has nothing to do with the rest of the book

After a promising start - I lost interest half way through the book and didn't finish it.
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VINE VOICEon 2 December 2012
A promising start which failed to deliver. Alec Milius is an ambitious young man hoping to move up in the world and become a spy, a job he feels he would be good at. He attends an interview in an unprepossessing building and somehow or another is recruited into the world of industrial espionage. The story follows his progress of lack of it through pages and pages of extremely boring almost non events until murder, mayhem and possibly double cross start to happen. Alec Milius is a particularly unlikeable character full of his own importance. The story drags on and on for so long that by the last hundred or so pages I started skipping great chunks. Not for me I am afraid.
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