At 46, Thomas Kell finds himself mired in regret after decades of double-dealing and spying. Kell is an on-again, off-again agent at MI6, the British intelligence agency.
When we meet Kell in A Divided Spy, Charles Cumming’s new novel, matters have gotten so grim that he’s stopped smoking and drinking and started going to the gym. He wanders around London in a daze, wondering what to do next – and whether he’s being followed.
Disillusioned, Kell thinks he’s done with spying. But, of course, he’s not.
The one thing that could lure him back – a chance at revenge against a Russian spy responsible for the death of Kell’s girlfriend a year earlier – gets the novel moving and Cumming doesn’t let up from there.
Critics often describe Cumming as a young John le Carré, a heady but valid superlative. Over the past five years, including the just-published “A Divided Spy,” Cumming has written three novels about Kell. (This is his eighth book overall.) Newcomers can read “A Divided Spy” as a standalone, though they will likely end up reading Cumming’s previous two books just so they can spend more time with Kell, an interesting if melancholy protagonist.
Kell’s former boss, Amelia Levene, is leery when Kell comes to her and seeks her help and permission to run an operation against the Russian spy. Levene believes Kell has been played, the victim of his own vengefulness, but reluctantly allows him to pursue his lead.
This sets up part of Cumming’s divided tale: Kell attempting to outmaneuver the Russian spy, a ruthless but charming adversary – while also scrambling to figure out whether and how Levene and others at MI6 might be sabotaging and second-guessing Kell’s work.
As if those complications aren’t enough, Kell adds to the tension by weaving a second narrative into his story that deals with the notion of homegrown terrorism. A British-born young man, the son of Pakistani immigrants, becomes radicalized by ISIS and assumes a new identity with an eye on staging a terrorist attack in the coastal resort city of Brighton.
The young man, Shahid Khan, has come to despise the social norms of his surroundings.
Or, as Cumming writes of Shahid’s mindset, “The openness of European society, the liberal values of America and the West, led directly to moral depravity. Therefore that society needed to be cleansed. Shahid understood this fully now. The cleansing could only take place if those who lived by such values were wiped away.”
As Kell’s mission is, in a sense, divided, so, too, is Shahid’s. He wants to become a martyr to the Caliphate, but, while he plots his attack and awaits orders to carry it out, Shahid falls in love.
After first becoming enamored with terrorism, Shahid went to several Middle Eastern countries and eventually changed his name and identity before returning to England. The young man who has become Shahid Khan re-enters his native country and goes to live in Portsmouth instead of his hometown, so that he won’t be recognized. As part of his new identity, Shahid gets a job in a local supermarket, where a co-worker named Rosie Maguire catches his eye.
“He was shocked by the intensity of his attraction to her, and ashamed that he had no control over it,” Cumming writes.
Shahid considers his affection for Rosie the ultimate test of his faith and courage to stay committed to martyrdom.
The Russian agent Kell is chasing is divided, too – between his wife and intelligence gathered by one of Kell’s contacts that shows the Russian having an affair with a German man.
As Kell and the Russian agent both know, the Russian government’s intolerance for homosexuality would likely cost the man his job, at minimum. A tip allows Kell to capture the Russian agent in London, where the two men begin a tense interrogation and negotiation that leads to the Russian agreeing to cooperate, on a limited basis, with Kell. He throws out a tantalizing tidbit about a rumored homegrown terrorist attack in Britain, which Kell knows could be essential information – or a lie conjured to buy the Russian agent time.
The relationship between Kell and his Russian rival includes not just some fun cat-and-mouse tactics to set up secret meetings, but also the tension of mutual mistrust leavened by mutual anxiety and weariness over spycraft in general.
And, in a few well-placed asides, they bond over an unexpected shared love of literature.
During Kell’s first meeting with the Russian spy, a question about lazy mistakes leads the Russian to say, “Everybody makes mistakes. Even God.”
Kell smiles at the remark, and responds by naming the author of that quote, asking, “Isaac Babel?”
The two men muse over the Russian writer for a moment before Kell mentions the cause of Babel’s death in 1940: He was killed by the Russian secret police for having an affair with an officer’s wife.