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A DIVIDED SPY
by Charles Cumming
St Martin's Press, February 2017
368 pages
$26.99
ISBN: 1250021049


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

What does a retired spy do? Thomas Kell, the protagonist of this third in the series that records the events that brought him to retirement, refuses to take on some of the dubious offers open to someone with his particular skillset. He has instead devoted the past twelve months of his retirement to a course of self-improvement, quitting smoking, going on the wagon, working out. That, and a careful cultivation of grief for the loss of his assassinated lover and a commitment to wreak retribution on the man he holds responsible for her loss, Alexander Minasian.

Still old habits die hard and Kell continues to guard against an unexpected attack as he rides the Underground, however unnecessary his vigilance seems to be. When an old colleague tells him that he has spotted Minasian and in a seriously compromised situation, Kell comes out of retirement, if only on an ad hoc basis, to turn Minasian and achieve a measure of revenge. He seems to expand a bit as he resumes his former calling.

Before the end of the Cold War, undertaking a spy novel was somewhat simpler than it is today, if only because of the stark ideological lines drawn between East and West. Whatever terrible things the West might get up to in the course of protecting its interests, its secret agents were at least committed to some ideal of freedom or democracy. Since then, however, the opponents have changed, with random terrorism, not secrets, the chief threat, and spycraft itself has become technological to a degree unimagined twenty or so years ago. One result has been a deepening interest in the character and personal morality of the spy, at least for novelists who look to Le Carré rather than Fleming as model. And this is the tradition that Cumming espouses.

This is not to say that he is not a brilliant technician. His plots are solidly conceived and executed for maximum suspense. His use of the mechanics of spying certainly convinces and seems up to date. In short, the kind of pleasures that the sub-genre has always offered is abundantly present in a Cumming spy story. But what is further available to the more serious-minded reader is an exploration of the moral dimension of the secret agent - his doubts, his failures, his conflicts, and ultimately, his lack of what can only be called job satisfaction, attributable at least in part to a failure of the society that employs him.

Much of A DIVIDED SPY is devoted to a delicate dance between Kell and Minasian, one in which neither party can quite trust the other and who is leading is uncertain. But the preparations made by a young Muslim terrorist to attack a random group of holiday-makers are interspersed and prevent the novel from drifting off into philosophical abstraction. Kell's attempt to convince his superiors in the service of the reality of the threat and his determination to prevent it produce a suspenseful climax impossible to put down.

This is the third novel and perhaps the last in the Thomas Kell series. Familiarity with the previous novels will make for a richer reading of this one, but it really is not absolutely necessary. The reader will garner enough about Thomas Kell to understand him and to wish him well. There is plenty here to satisfy any reader who demands, along with tense adventure, a bit of depth and some ideas worth considering, not the least of which is the toll professional spying takes on the capacity to love.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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