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The spy who loved me
on 23 February 2015
Drone warfare, collateral damage, extraordinary rendition, and illegal imprisonment: these and other exercises of US power are articulated by a CIA agent in an effort to justify his role as a mole in Western intelligence. By putting these dark acts in the mouth of the villain of "A Colder War", Charles Cumming effectively diminishes their meaning. How different from the barely veiled anger at the forms of state and corporate power in the post-Cold War novels of John Le Carré, with whom Cumming is sometimes associated, particularly when his first two novels were published. Judging by the occasional references to James Bond in this latest novel, Ian Fleming is a closer influence than Le Carré. This is hardly a colder war.
Only intermittently is an external threat (Syria) referenced and this has the effect of isolating the warring secret services and their respective obsessions: protocols (dead-letter boxes [DLB's], cut-outs etc), their own history (Kim Philby for the British, James Angleton's crusade for the Americans) and, of course, new traitors. "A Colder War" is a hunt for a mole in the CIA or SIS, Langley or Vauxhall Cross. After so many spy novels, I found myself thinking, Oh, no, not another mole, and one whose motivation is even less credible than most.
This is not to say that this latest search for a mole lacks excitement and tension. The surveillance and counter-surveillance episode in London is tautly and expertly described. And the visit to an island near Istanbul, to discover a DLB is both gripping and geographically vivid. However, the cocooning of the secret world that follows from the basic lack of political seriousness in "A Colder War" (and this in a genre that has international politics and its hidden departments as its basis), threatens to turn this novel into a piece of societal entertainment. Espionage becomes a life-style choice rather than a product of upbringing and (private) education, with their accompanying world-view and belief in Britain's destiny - as in Le Carré. Here, spying is an entrée to a life of new friends, new techno-gadgets, world travel, and consumer goods. Even novels and biographies are part of the consumption of goods: Julian Barnes's "Sense of an Ending" and Doris Kearns' "Team of Rivals", the latter "because", as "C", the head of SIS, says "everyone I know is reading it." School fees are another perk of the job or a lifestyle choice, rather than being paid because to do so is a family tradition, a tradition which destroys Le Carre's "honourable schoolboy", even as the author sees it for what it is. The espionage plot is almost a cover story for sexual encounters and love affairs: "The spy who loved me".