'A Colder War' features dramatic twists, exotic scenery, and inscrutable characters

From Istanbul to Odessa, Charles Cumming's latest spy tale is packed with the classic pleasures of a really good thriller. 

A Colder War, by Charles Cumming, St. Martin’s Press, 400 pp.

Along with Olen Steinhauer, Charles Cumming stands at the head of the younger generation of spy novelists. Cumming, who is British, published several books before his fictional account of the real-life Cambridge University spy ring, "The Trinity Six," won him a wider audience in 2011.

A year later, "A Foreign Country" took Cumming in a new direction, introducing Thomas Kell, a contemporary British spy in the Secret Information Service. Kell hails from George Smiley territory: cursed with a conscience, blessed with cleverness but few Jason Bourne-style action-hero skills, and always ambivalent about his chosen profession.

Kell returns in A Colder War, a book that surpasses its predecessor in every way. It can and will be enjoyed by those who have yet to read the earlier novel, although it's even more entertaining for those already familiar with Kell.

The foreign-intelligence spy comes into focus in sorry shape: marriage over, career all but dead because of assumed if unfair accusations of extraordinary rendition, smoking and drinking alone in a London pub.

As Cumming describes Kell, he “had been in a state of suspended animation” for 18 months. Despite rescuing the kidnapped son of Amelia Levene, the tough, shrewd woman who runs MI6 (Military Intelligence, Section 6, the designation for Kell’s SIS) in "A Foreign Country," Kell remains a pariah for his presumed role in a CIA-waterboarding interrogation.

Until, of course, Levene, his boss and uneasy ally, needs someone to carry out a discrete inquiry. First an Iranian defector dies in an explosion just before reaching amnesty. Soon after that, Paul Wallinger, the British agent who helped stage the botched escape, crashes a Cessna while island-hopping in the Greek islands.

Wallinger, among other things, ran MI6’s Ankara station, knew Kell well, and was a lover of Levene’s before she became the head of MI6. If this sounds like an espionage opera, don’t let that stand in the way of a thrilling spy ride, accented with the right balance of dramatic twists, exotic scenery (Istanbul and Odessa, principally), and inscrutable characters on all sides.

Just trying to figure out who killed who would be too neat and tidy to put a spy of Kell’s acumen to the test, so Cumming leads him into the shadows in several ways. For starters, Levene is, for some unknown reason, only giving Kell part of the story. Even more problematic, Kell must untangle possible treachery on the part of the CIA – which had been working with MI6 on the Iranian asset – without tipping off anyone in American foreign intelligence.

Kell’s observations, to the benefit of readers, extend beyond the CIA, the SVR (the foreign intelligence arm of what used to be the KGB), and his internal rivals at MI6.

Among the examples: “It had dawned on Thomas Kell that the number of funerals he was attending in a calendar year had begun to outstrip the number of weddings.” A former co-worker’s admonition about the “no-man’s-land” of middle age comes to mind, sandwiched between attempts to chase down suspects marred by cigarette-weakened lungs.

The thrill of passport-stamps has long since faded, too, and Kell now casts a jaundiced eye on the exotic sites he visits. “Athens,” he reflects, “cradle of civilization, epicenter of debt.”

And there is this travelogue, familiar to anyone who has been in an airport since 9/11: “By seven the next morning Kell was in a cab to Gatwick and back in the dreary routine of twenty-first century flying: the long, agitated queues; the liquids farcically bagged; the shoes and belts pointlessly removed.”

A boarding cattle call represents a universe of espionage far removed from the era of "shaken, not stirred."

Kell and his boss are literate, boasting quite a reading list during their far-flung travels, including Doris Kearns Goodwin’s "Team of Rivals" and novels by Julian Barnes ("The Sense of an Ending"), Orhan Pamuk ("My Name is Red") and — a nod to George Smiley — John le Carré ("The Secret Pilgrim").

Late in the book, Cumming pulls off a couple of nice surprises, along with a heartbreaker. And as for the inevitable movie version? The chase along the Potemkin Steps, in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, feels timely and picturesque at once. Readers can only hope Cumming has plenty of sequels in mind for Thomas Kell, who seems to unravel matters of national security as capably as he navigates airport security.

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