A Spy by Nature by Charles Cumming
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I think I’m gonna have to swim against the tide here. Or at least against the tide of (what are quite possibly reviews for the hardback version) reviews on the cover and inside of my paperback.
Far from “Eerily good” or “wonderfully assured, tautly written, cleverly plotted”, I found this really struggling to make ‘so-so’. For me, as well as The Kinks, it’s ‘a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook up’ mess.
It starts out alright, with the main man Alec Milius being recommended for a job with the Intelligence services. He then finds work with an oil company exploring out somewhere and is involved trying to sweet-talk his American rivals, who also may be more than they seem. Both sides are playing at something they aren’t and I think both sides know it. It’s just that it goes on and on and on and on in the central part of the novel. I kept thinking “enough already, he’s taking the bait, he’s going to take the bait, let’s get to what the cover says are the “gripping” bit(s).” But they never came. What we do get a lot of are unnecessary details and what I presume are the author’s opinions on everything from New Zealand bar staff, to FHM, The Times, the Civil Service, cooking ravioli ‘pillows’ , and a lot more stuff and nonsense really way too mundane to bother with. A few pages of that and a few lines covering the rest would have done. Then on to the cloak and dagger stuff. But no. Problem is, when I’m seemingly through this middle bit and it looks like we might be getting back to, or down to the nub of it, I’ve forgotten what the original set-up was. Or if there was one. I can’t remember now just exactly who he’s supposedly working for and why. Or if there ever was a why. Or who.
Then the final part, where he is really finding out how it is to be a spy, well it read well at the time. However, on reflection and in the cold light of day, it is all a bit of a damp squib. Not really worth wading through all that went before to get to. I thought of one particular plot twist that could have been worked in at the end that really would have upset the whole apple cart and sent me scurrying back to re-read the previous hours of wining and dining. It would have fitted with a lot of the personal trauma Alec Milius is going through right from when we first meet him. But it wasn’t to be…though, maybe Charles Cumming is being really fiendish here and my idea (which could be his, of course) will come out in later books? There seems to be at least two more with Alec Milius as hero, maybe more, so maybe it’s for me to read more and find out? Milius will need to sharpen his act up a hell of a lot though.
After reading and thoroughly enjoying The Trinity Six, I really expected a lot more from A Spy By Nature. But I got a lot less. Less plot, less suspense and tension and less of a story. The only more I got, was more fill, padding and ‘flannel’ – as an old boss of mine used to say. I think this is essentially a short story padded out to 500-odd pages. A back of an envelope plot stretched to breaking point. And beyond. And then some.