Sunday, September 3, 2017

Book Review: 'A Divided Spy' by Charles Cumming

Thomas Kell is a bitter forty-six year old former spy who once worked for MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service. During a botched operation, he lost a woman he cared for deeply. Since then, some of his former colleagues consider Tom a has-been, whose twenty years of service count for nothing. Kell is divorced, childless, and intensely lonely. His quiet but unfulfilling life is disrupted when Howard Mowbray, who spent two decades in MI5, tells Tom that a married Soviet agent, Alexander Minasian, is secretly gay. Kell hopes to use this explosive revelation to his advantage.

In "A Divided Spy," Charles Cumming continues to explore his characters' personalities, motivations, and fears. He also touches on such timely themes as the ever-present threat of terrorism, the inertia of government bureaucracies, and the nerve-wracking nature of espionage. Kell is desperate for revenge, but he also wants to matter again; he is tired of feeling like a ghost whom no one sees. For his part, Minasian is conflicted about his sexuality, but he is also reasonable and practical. Another player is Shahid Khan, a jihadi who is prepared to sacrifice himself for his holy cause. Meanwhile, when Tom seeks aid from the chief of the SIS, Amelia Levine, whom he once helped out of a tight spot, she dismisses his concerns, as if he were a pesky fly.

There are some hackneyed elements that weaken the story somewhat. For instance, Shahid is straight out of central casting. We have seen his type countless times in other thrillers. In addition, his sudden attraction to a pretty girl at a key moment in his mission strains credulity. Still, readers will empathize with Tom's distress: His solitude, the intelligence community's lack of respect for his contributions, and sheer boredom with his purposeless existence impel him to behave recklessly. What he comes to realize is that lying, looking over one's shoulder, persuading foreign agents to turn against their countries, and overseeing dangerous operations is not a recipe for happiness. He was "exhausted by the effort of trying to make a difference in a world where no difference could be made." Spying may be thrilling, stimulating, and necessary, but as Cumming demonstrates so well in this engrossing--but not completely convincing--work of fiction, it is a soul-destroying way to spend one's precious days on earth.

Editor's note: This review was written by Eleanor Bukowsky and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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