"A Colder War," sets the bar even higher in terms of the spy novel. I have to declare immediately that I am an avid fan of Charles Cumming's work and have eagerly read all his books from the start beginning with "A Spy by Nature." His books have increasingly developed a cohesiveness with sharp dialogue, expertly plotted, with an authentic feel to the story.
The tale is a clever one, set in a refreshingly different location, Istanbul, with a contemporary plot and seemingly unconnected events, all coming together.
Thomas Kell, the British agent, whose career was resurrected in A Foreign Country, is tasked with investigating the death of the local Head of Station. A 'mole' is suspected and the pace of narrative is relentless as Kell unravels the pieces of the jigsaw. It's not all plain sailing of course as he is obliged to work alongside a CIA agent, who had a part in his fall from grace. Kell is a rounded character with even a love interest brilliantly portrayed by the author.
A Colder War is not only a first class thriller providing a glimpse of the intelligence world but a book which is compelling and addictive.
In terms of the world of espionage stories this is gold standard.
Cumming has become an excellent exponent of the spy novel. The intrigue, the deceit, the questionable trust, the exotic locations - they're all here. Fascinating for me to come to it after finishing Ben MacIntyre's excellent 'A Spy Among Friends' - a non-fiction account of Philby's treachery and how easily and casually it was done in the face of the smug and arrogant 'old school tie' brigade at the top of British Intelligence. Cumming knows his stuff and one thing I do like is the lack of patronising. If you're going to read a spy story [and the cover tells you you are] then any follower of the genre won't need an explanation of the 'cousins' or the SVR or a DLB or what Cheltenham does, and Cumming doesn't disappoint. The other thing obvious from the cover is the setting - in this case Istanbul, which in itself conjures up an image of a bustling, exciting city, full of history and close to the borders of Iraq, Iran and Russia. I can forgive him the odd lapse - you do have to tread lightly over one or two bits - but it is a novel after all and not, as with MacIntyre, a piece of meticulous research. I like Kell; I find him thoroughly believable. He's feeling his age, smokes too much, forgets to put the bins out, wonders what he wants from women to say nothing of his position in MI6.
I won't touch on the story. Actually, I'm not sure there is much of a one. There's a mole - Kell's task is to find out who. Is all.
I enjoyed it though. It's compulsive and well-written. I recommend it highly.
And the next time you're on a train to Euston or a plane going on your holidays, have a look [not too hard now!] at the person sitting in the aisle seat three rows down.......
I have read all of Charles Cumming's spy books and I thoroughly enjoy them. They are more akin to George Smiley than James Bond which is to the good, well in my opinion anyway.
In this title we meet Thomas Kell once more who featured in the previous book when he was tasked to find Amelia Levene, head of Intelligence Service, when she went off grid. This time he is sent to investigate a mysterious plane crash in which MI6's Head of Station in Turkey, met his death. It seems he was involved with a woman who may or may not be what she seems, was seen having a meeting with a Russian agent and as it appears there is a Mole somewhere in the service, suspicion is aroused by these actions.
What I like about these books is that there is no attempt to make spying a glamorous profession. OK there is a beautiful woman here for our hero, but the emphasis is on winkling out the traitor through elimination, surveillance and a lot of basic work. I find this approach fascinating, I loved Tinker Tailor by le Carre for the same reason, and so Charles Cumming finds a fan in me.
Twists and turns but I will say no more as I do not want to give anything away or spoil the ending. Do read.
on 24 February 2015
It's a bit unfair of me to bring in other thriller writers here, as these days I ignore so many of them. (If I see another quoted review with the words "serial killer", "brutal" or "chilling"... I just never buy them.) There is a handful of absolute greats still around, and Charles Cumming really is in a class of his own, I think, authentic, human, realistic - but in an interesting, not boring way! If you are taken by the quality of, say, John Le Carre or Gerald Seymour, you'd be making a mistake to neglect Charles Cumming. Don't be taken in by those crappy comparisons with, say, James Bond or Fleming - they're great too, but take place in a quite different sort of world, and are great for quite different reasons. This is espionage for the intelligent, not just part of the widespread modern practice of have-the-film-rights-in-mind, grab-them-worry-them-frighten-them-have big chases and/or explosions, let-them-heave-a-big-sigh-of-relief-while-you-imagine-a-Hollywood-scene-where-everybody-is-clapping-and-cheering. Readers do have minds as well as emotions. Cumming knows this!
on 1 May 2014
After a couple of ponderous novels that I had to work to finish, A Colder War was just the type of book I needed.
I think I finished it in 3 sittings over a couple of days.
I can't wait to see what is in store for Kell next, although I may have an inkling...
This is a great book written in the best tradition of British spy authors.
on 16 October 2014
My second outing with this Scottish author, who was according to his biography, briefly employed by British intelligence service MI6 in the 90’s. My first taste was his stand-alone novel Typhoon which I read back at the end of 2011 in my pre-blogging days. I have it rated it on Goodreads among my read books as a 4.
Typhoon, from the author’s website…. published in the UK 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. Typhoon was listed by The New York Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2009.
A Colder War is Cumming’s seventh book to date and is the second to feature Thomas Kell and Amelia Levene – the first being A Foreign Country.
Kell is tasked by Levene, his boss with investigating the suspicious death of another British agent based in Turkey. Kell seizes the opportunity to hopefully get his career back on track – he’s been in limbo after getting burned on a previous assignment – courtesy of a CIA agent, Jim Chater and his involvement in an extraordinary rendition.
An exciting book with Kell digging deeper into Paul Wallinger’s death…..spies, moles, traitors, double agents or perhaps triple! We have a bit of a jaunt around Europe – Turkey and London, with some time spent in the Ukraine also. Planes, trains and automobiles as well as the odd ferry. Throw in a funeral, some drinks parties, a bit of nightclubbing, some romance with some frantic sex, a few CIA agents, the Russians with their SVR ………and overall you have a decent tale well told.
Kell is sympathetic and appealing, though some of his actions, which the book turn on, perhaps seem a bit implausible to this reader. We have his back stories, both personal – divorce and loneliness - and professional – that dirty Yank Chater, had me liking him.
As the narrative unfolded and we concentrated our efforts on our suspect, I particularly liked the scenes where surveillance techniques were employed against an agent who was wise to the possibility and he was using counter-surveillance measures to shake his trackers – enjoyable and intriguing. I do like that aspect of the spy story.
Also the investigative element; where Kell only has a piece or two of the jigsaw and his boss has more pictures of the puzzle which she is holding onto. Elements of who knows what and when, and who we believe and whether we trust them add to the tension. The sometimes volatile relationship between Kell and Levene – boss and employee or friend and confidant – added another layer to my enjoyment.
A minor niggle or two but overall I enjoyed this more than the last one, though would stick with 4 from 5 as an overall score. I’ll definitely want to read more from Cumming in the future, which is just as well as I have most of his other books in the stash. I always find my answer to that “want to read more by” question helps determine my overall enjoyment quotient.
Charles Cumming's website is here. http://www.charlescumming.co.uk/
Again then 4 from 5
Bought earlier this year on Amazon for kindle.
on 12 July 2016
I like Charles Cumming and want him to be successful.
His best books to date have been his stand alones - the 5 star 'Typhoon' and the 4 star 'Cambridge Six'
When he goes into series land a wheel tends to come off. I found his Milner books as dull as hell and these Kell books, although better, just don't quite hit the bulls eye.
Why this is, is both difficult and easy to pin down.
Difficult because yes, the boy can write, the characters are well drawn,the plotting is quite deft and he knows the spy game.
Easy because he fails to create the doom laden atmosphere of a Le Carre and doesn't always demonstrate the dialogue and the sparkling humour that Deighton did so well.
One or both of which are essential to prevent the serious procedural spy story from being slightly dull.
And this is the problem with this one. I left it not really caring about Kell. Thinking he is a bit of a sad case who needs to get a life and should stop smoking.
Also when you start to think that this might make a good TV series rather than a great movie it probably says something and this is how I finished up feeling about this one.
That said, I will read 'The Divided Spy' because I have a feeling the best is still to come from Mr Cumming.
on 3 May 2014
I thoroughly enjoyed the previous novel featuring Tom Kell, and this one was even better. A top rank British spy, Paul Wallinger, is killed when the plane he was flying crashes. Was it an accident or was he killed? Did Russia have a hand in it, or could there be a mole in British or American intelligence? Tom Kell, officially disgraced but in favour with the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Amelia Levene, is sent to investigate.
The action moves from London to Turkey and the Greek islands as Tom pursues various leads and eventually discovers the identity of the mole while managing to fall in love with the daughter of Wallinger. Have to say I found this romance the least convincing part of the plot but the fast-moving story and the details of espionage were enthralling, convincing and often despicable as they should be.
An excellent read, and hints given that we haven't seen the last of Tom Kell.
on 12 May 2014
This follows on from a previous Tom Kell adventure, "A Foreign Country". I expect it would be better to read that first since they are both very enjoyable, but not essential.
The material sounds horribly authentic - not a problem for the book but it does make you wonder what the security services are all up to!
I will be continuing to read Charles Cummings books.
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".