Friday, August 15, 2014

Espionage in Turkey: A COLDER WAR by Charles Cumming

Charles Cumming brings back Thomas Kell for a second time in A COLDER WAR, the sequel to A Foreign Country  -- and it's a solid work of espionage suspense, playing off the secret forces of Britain, the United States, and Russia, in an irresistible setting, modern Turkey, especially Istanbul.

The death of Paul Wallinger, head of the MI6 operation in Turkey, opens a puzzle that begins to focus on a possible double agent (mole) in the British secret service. Under the micromanaging aegis of the agency's head, Amelia -- code-named C, and unfortunately, one of Wallinger's lovers -- Tom Kell gets a chance to resume his duties by investigating Wallinger's death. It's a dodgy assignment: If he succeeds, he may also topple a number of operations and individuals. And anything that goes wrong will be hung on his badly tarnished reputation, which has held him out of active service for too long already.

Cumming's work is often compared with that of John Le Carré, but other than sharing the same Service, MI6, there are few parallels. Tom Kell is much younger and less wounded, as well as less skilled, than George Smiley. Cumming offers him not just a chance to re-enter his career, but also a jump-start of the heart, as Kell fears his work has hardened him and has mixed feelings about the recent end of his marriage. Cumming also weaves in far more male-female interaction, from lust to love, than the older fictional spymasters have done. Meanwhile the work has none of the despair underlying Alan Furst's approach to the European conflicts, for example, or the sense of history's burden that Furst and similarly dark authors like Stuart Neville connect so potently to their plots.

Still, A COLDER WAR is a good read, with a plausible villain, several surprising twists, and a protagonist who is more likable than many a fictional spy and mole-chaser has been in the past. This won't linger on my read-it-again shelf, but I enjoyed it -- and perhaps most of all, the unexpectedly ominous foreshadowing of its ending.

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