Spy author Charles Cumming discusses his new title 'A Foreign Country'

Cumming talks about missing out on that M16 job and the role of gender in the world of spies.

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    Author Charles Cumming brings his protagonist, Kell, across Europe and into North Africa in his new book 'A Foreign Country.'
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Just before Amelia Levene takes over the British foreign spy service, she disappears in the south of France. No one knows where she is and British authorities scramble to locate her before word leaks to other countries or, worse, the media.

Panicked executives at MI6 summon disgraced agent Thomas Kell, a longtime friend and colleague of Amelia, to figure out what’s happened and why. The personal and the political soon collide, with forays into North Africa and across Europe.

Welcome to the brainy spy world of Charles Cumming, a young British author who, with the publication of “The Trinity Six” in 2011, drew comparisons to renowned thriller masters Alan Furst, John le Carré and Olen Steinhauer, among others. He returns this month with the story of Thomas Kell in A Foreign Country.

Recommended: How well do you know the world of spying? Take our CIA and NSA quiz.

Readers first meet Kell seven months after the spy service coerced him to retire at the ripe old age of 42. Childless and on the verge of divorce, Kell awakes in a strange bed, nursing a “hangover comparable in range and intensity to the reproduction Jackson Pollock hanging on the wall of his temporary bedroom.”

Kell isn’t a man of derring-do like James Bond or Jack Reacher. Instead he relies on a mixture of smarts and intuition to solve problems of international intrigue.

Cumming keeps things moving with plenty of surveillance and tricks of the trade, but retains enough plausibility to make his hero relatable. Like George Smiley and other literary spies, Thomas Kell fascinates because of the constant tension between his ideals and the pragmatic reality of his trade.

A thumbnail sketch in “A Foreign Country” illustrates Kell’s quandary. “It occurred to him, as it often did in the depths of the night, that he knew only one way of being – a path that was separate to all others. Sometimes it felt as though his entire personality had grown out of a talent for the clandestine; he could not remember who he had been before the tap on the shoulder at twenty.”

Kell broods, to be sure, but he also proves nimble at switching aliases, popping hotel safes, and sizing up unexpected threats. During a recent interview from England, Cumming discussed the future of Kell, the differences between American and British spies, and whether the notion of a happy spy is an oxymoron. Following are excerpts:

On the inspiration for the book: There’s been a scandal over here involving Witness B, an MI5 officer – MI5 being domestic security, MI6 being foreign intelligence. Witness B was accused of being present at an aggressive interrogation of a man called Binyam Mohamed. [Mohamed, a UK resident originally from Ethiopia, in 2010 agreed to a settlement worth a reported 1 million pounds from the British government after a lengthy legal fight over whether intelligence services conspired with Americans and allowed torture during rendition.] Mohamed was taken by the CIA and rendered through North Africa and then sent to Guantanamo Bay because the Americans believed that he was a potential terrorist because he’d been in Pakistan and Afghanistan immediately after 9/11.

Mohamed said it wasn’t true. So this MI5 officer was accused of being complicit [with the US]. I thought that was a quite interesting idea. We have a very close relationship with the Americans; the British are entirely reliant on the Americans for a lot of their intelligence and so forth. The last thing they want to do is break that relationship. I was trying to explore that.

On having a female MI6 chief as a major character: The reason to have a female chief was there is a sexism, a male chauvinism in MI6 over here. It’s still very much of a male-dominated, English public school-dominated service. It’s actually highly unlikely that Judi Dench [who plays James Bond’s boss in recent movies] or Amelia Levene [who runs MI6 in “A Foreign Country”] would actually make it to the top of the service. When I said to my friends in MI6 that I’d created this character, they all puffed out their cheeks. They couldn’t believe it. We’ve had two female heads at MI5.

On the benefits of having a woman lead MI6: I’m fascinated by the journey that an intelligent and an ambitious woman makes in the professional world in contrast to the journey that a man of similar ambition, of similar intelligence makes. What sort of concessions does a woman have to make? Does she have to work 20 percent harder than a man? How does her sexuality come into it? It’s just more interesting than having a standard male chief of the service. Also, the dynamic between Kell, the main character, and Amelia. They’ve sort of come up through the service together, there’s a great tension there that’s a possible romantic tension, as well. It just gave the book more layers.

On why spy work remains a male province: It doesn’t matter so much at the domestic level or the European level or in North America. But if you’re a woman operating in certain parts of Africa or Italy or elsewhere, the top people expect to deal with a man. There’s a sense of a loss of face or status if they are negotiating with a woman, that’s one element of it. Added to that, there’s the problem of being a woman in quite aggressive environments, which again counts against them. Female MI6 officers would probably tell me that that isn’t the case. But that’s how it’s been explained to me why would it prevent a woman from getting to the top.

On well-adjusted spies: [laughs] In my experience, there are people – in all walks of life, whether it’s politics or the Olympics or merchants – there are people who are at peace with what that they do. And there are others who are not. Maybe in that world, particularly in spies, this is more the tradition of spy literature. The idea of the conflicted protagonist, the man who is on the one hand a patriot, a guy who has joined to protect and serve, and then finds himself compromised, lying, deceiving and making accommodations they wouldn’t necessarily have made in their idealistic youth. It’s kind of a metaphor for all our lives, not just spies. As we get older, life becomes very complicated in terms of concessions we have to make.

On differences in spy literature: I find a difference in British spy fiction and American spy fiction. In the American version, it’s more militaristic, partly because the CIA has more of the military makeup. Whereas MI6 is more of a cerebral, intelligence-based, relationship-based service, i.e., all they do is recruit people to get information out of them. It’s always been far more interesting to me to study character and behavior than it has to have car bombs or nuclear devices going off.

People feel closer to the personality. I can imagine having a cup of coffee with [le Carré’s] George Smiley, I can imagine sitting down to dinner with [Philip Kerr’s World War II-era German detective] Bernie Gunther. They’re not Jack Bauer, they’re not James Bond, they’re not cartoon superheroes. The trick is to then to make those people remarkable in some way, to show that they do have resourcefulness or quick-wittedness to work people out.

On how he became a thriller writer: Well, I was approached for a job by MI6 when I was about 25, so, 15 years ago. I didn’t get the job. But I had a short recruitment experience that gave me enough material to write my first book, which was called “A Spy by Nature," which was a semi-autobiographical account of what happened to me in my youth. And then I just stuck with it. Writing’s always been a thing I was good at. I enjoy writing. And I was hopeless with numbers [laughs].

On researching his books: I try to do less and less because I think you can get a bit research-heavy. I did a book called “Typhoon” that was set in China. It was incredibly hard to write because I didn’t know China well. It was very complicated and culturally complex. It took a lot of readings and a lot of journeys to China and talking to people and then if you’ve done all that work, you want to put it all into the novel. The narrative can suffer as a result. I’m trying with the Kell books – there is another one coming – to really just concentrate on character and story. And then if people learn something about the Arab Spring or Witness B, that’s a bonus.

On what’s next: I like Kell a lot. I feel comfortable around him. He’s an interesting man. I’m going to write at least three books about him. The reaction over here and the advance reaction in the States has been amazing and people seem to enjoy “A Foreign Country.” They haven’t necessarily been taken with previous characters who have been more like anti-heroes. There’s that fine line between creating a realistic person, but also somebody who is a hero, somebody who people want to get behind and support.

Check out a clip of the audio book here:

Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.

Recommended: How well do you know the world of spying? Take our CIA and NSA quiz.
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