A Colder War by Charles Cumming
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I couldn’t have enjoyed this book any more if I’d tried. Believe me. If you’ve ever been a fan of, or even ever heard someone say they’ve been a fan of the classic Spy Fiction writers, then this is for you – and them.
I’ll admit I wasn’t totally taken by A Spy By Nature, though I thought A Foreign Country was much more like it, if not entirely there. However, with A Colder War, in my Charles Cumming experiences so far, the cover blurb does actually seem to have been written about the book contained within the dust jacket. This is bang up to date in themes and story line, but is clearly rooted in the proud tradition of the old spy-school of writing. I don’t think I’m doing CC a disfavour there, as this stands up to the comparisons incredibly well and takes his writing – for me at least – into exciting, new can’t put it down, can’t get over how good it is compared to the previous ones, can’t wait for the next one, territory. I can see now, that they were leading up to this tour de force. CC has taken the best bits from the previous Thomas Kell outings, pulled the strings taut, cut out the fat and flannel, added in ‘Moscow Rules’ and shaken it all up with modern technology and a healthy dose of ’now.’ And out comes A Colder War. Maybe the title is a reflection of his self-confidence, in calling it ‘Colder’ as to what his aims for the book are/were? To out-do the Cold War classic novels of le Carré and such like? It’s probably more an indication of the re-shaped spy landscape there is out there, modern terrorists are not playing nice, like the old-school fellows of the past…but, as here, the protagonators in the background, are still the old school – UK, USA, Russia. But this is worse. Maybe.
I don’t know about that, but I do know it stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of them and head and shoulders above the trashy, flashy American versions of spy novels there are so many of. Only Edward Wilson’s ’The Whitehall Mandarin’ is in the same ball-park at the moment for me this year. Oh yeah, I thought Tim Steven’s excellent ‘Ratcatcher’ and central figure of John Purkiss, was operating in something of the same area as Cumming’s Thomas Kell. Look, I seriously doubt I’ll read a better, more entertaining, more tense, more satisfying spy novel/thriller, in a long, long time.
As mentioned above, A Colder War reunites us with Thomas Kell, the hero of the previous Charles Cummings novel I read: Another Country. He is a ‘disgraced ex-agent’ he’s been “cold shouldered by the Secret Intelligence Service eighteen months earlier, (and) been in a state of suspended animation ever since.” With a foot in two camps (in and out) kind of, this gives Kell an amount of outsider perspective to the fun and games going on inside British Intelligence. However, Kell does desperately wants to be back ‘in.’ In favour, back in the ‘game,’ in from The Cold. His wife has become his ex-wife and his local boozer is becoming his home, when a call from his ex-boss Amelia Levine, brings him crashing back into The Warm. Again. As it was Kell she called on previously, when she was having a little trouble on the family front, you may recall, in A Foreign Country. There is a cynicism, or a realism, despite Kell’s longing to be back and while he tells himself: “You’re back in the game…This is what you wanted. But the buzz had gone.” The ‘buzz’ soon comes back as well. Wallinger, the British Head of Station in Turkey, has died in a plane crash and Levine wants it investigated – the (possible) catastrophe explained and contained. Kell is sent to Turkey, uncovers doubts surrounding the crash, with tentacles reaching out into the whole of MI6’s operations in the region. Then suspicions arise (‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’-like, given there are four candidates in the frame), that there is a leak. But, is it a British or American mole? That’s the question Kell and colleagues need answering fast, before the Russians come in and clear up. People aren’t who they say they are, don’t do what they say, don’t say what they do or who they work for. Ah yes, it’s just like the old days, hoorah! Haven’t said: “Oops! You shouldn’t have told them that!” out loud in a long time.
Thomas Kell has developed into a thoroughly believable lead character. I’m not going to say admirable, or likeable or sympathetic even, but he is believable. His background, his reasons and reasoning, his actions and his thoughts, all are rock-solid believable. Nothing stretches the imagination, nothing makes you think ‘ok, I’m not gonna go along with that being his motive, but let’s see where it goes before we pass the salt around.’ Nope, he is refreshingly and objectively jaundiced, if that’s even possible. He’s been right royally shafted by the The Service in the past, but still desperately wants to be back inside, though that doesn’t mean he has to like himself, or them, for it.
From there on, the story goes every place you would wish it to, though without ever being predictable. The writing is economical and effective and I was held hanging the whole time – constantly trying to guess what was next. I was (nearly) always wrong. It’s a read it a little bit more, read it propped open with the jam jar at breakfast, read it on the bus and miss your stop, think about it all day, try to explain your theories underway, in Danish, to your Danish colleagues, good. Really. This is gonna be a hard act to follow and no mistake. But I think, on the evidence of this (and I have my own idea of how he can do it), Charles Cummings is the man to do it.
Anything else of this genre I read from now on, will have to stand comparison to A Colder War.