Mon
Feb 13 2017 2:00pm

Review: A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming

A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming is the 3rd book in the Thomas Kell series (available February 14, 2017).

Charles Cumming, a British writer of spy fiction that's been called an heir to John le Carré, has written his 3rd Thomas Kell spy thriller, A Divided Spy. Cumming, once employed by MI6, writes from his own experience in the Secret Intelligence Service. His polished prose reflects his education at Eton College and the University of Edinburgh.

In A Divided Spy, which takes place mostly in London, Cumming introduces us to spycraft through his protagonist Thomas Kell, who is a former MI6 agent. Kell resigned four years earlier after the assassination of his lover Rachel Wallinger, also an MI6 agent.

Kell’s thirst for revenge and his emotional life are at the heart of this engaging story. No one in spy stories seems happy, and Kell is no exception. Besides his grief over the death of his lover, Kell questions the life of an agent—which he describes as one of lying, deception, and the sacrificing of relationships. He’s lost his marriage, he has no children, and he feels isolated and alone. So why become a spy at all? Kell reveals his motives for joining SIS as a young man:

More than twenty years earlier, Kell had joined SIS in a spirit of undiluted patriotism. To save lives, to defend and protect the kingdom, had seemed to him both a noble and an exhilarating pursuit for a young man with adventure in his blood. Now that London was a city of Africans and Americans, of Hollande-fleeing French, of Eastern Europeans too young to have known the impediments of communism, he felt no different. The landscape had changed, yet Kell still felt wedded to an idea ofEngland as the country evolved, even as that idea shifted and slipped beneath his feet. There were days when he longed to return to active duty, to stand once again at Amelia’s side. But he had allowed the personal to overcome the political.

Kell knows that an Alexander Minasian—a Russian spy working for SVR, Russia’s external intelligence agency—killed Rachel. He’s lived uncomfortably with this knowledge for four years.

Kell stepped off the train and registered the familiar acid taste of his implacable resentment. It was the one thing he had been unable to control. He had come to terms with the end of his marriage, he had mastered his grief, reasoned that his professional future lay beyond the walls of Vauxhall Cross. Yet Kell could not still a yearning for vengeance. He wanted to seek out those in Moscow who had given the order for Rachel’s assassination. He wanted justice.

Through happenstance, Kell is offered information and an opportunity to actually snare Minasian and avenge the death of his lover. Harold Mowbray—Kell’s once seemingly loyal SIS underling—discovered condemning information on Manasian that will ruin his career in the SVR. This information plays a key role in the story and drives Kell back into the spy game. But when he attempts to gain assistance from MI6, they turn him down and question his judgement.

Another assassination occurs, also related to Minasian, and Kell approaches MI6 again, but they continue to question his judgment and refuse involvement. So he continues on his own.

Kell, however, even questions himself at one point. With more exposure to Minasian, he questions whether his own conclusions about Rachel’s assassination are true.

Kell was beginning to doubt his longheld belief that Minasian had encouraged Rachel’s murder. He felt that the decision had come from Moscow and that Minasian had been overruled when he tried to stop it. He had no evidence for this other than a sense that the man sitting in front of him was too canny, too cautious and all-seeing, to have made such a rash move. Rachel’s death had been a senseless act, not only morally indefensible but strategically pointless. Minasian was surely far too subtle to sink to such depths or to sully his reputation so needlessly.

“I know that the order to kill Rachel came from Moscow,” he repeated, “just as I know that my Service had nothing to do with what happened today.... I believe you were betrayed by your own people.”

Minasian looked toward the lens of the iPhone, longing to switch it off so that he could speak with total openness.

“Believe what you want,” he said. “I know my own people. I know my own side.”

“You can do better than this, surely?” Minasian replied, revealing an unsurprising gift for withering condescension. Kell was not deterred.

Cumming develops Minasian’s deviousness so well that we don’t know—and neither does Kell—if Minasian is being honest with him or using tradecraft, telling him what he wants to hear. Nothing is out of reach in this world, it appears, and no treachery is forbidden.

While most spy thrillers throw so many characters and plots at you that you just get lost after a while, this highly readable tale keeps you abreast with easily digestible facts.

A smaller plot, but no less intriguing, is the threat of a terrorist attack by a suicide bomber on an English town. If you have a healthy curiosity, you may wonder how terrorists obtain legitimate papers, passports, and alternative identities. Cumming offers one highly believable scenario, which you’ll have to read the book to discover, and there’s also a peek into the thinking of a suicide bomber:

As soon as he saw Rosie Maguire for the first time, Shahid Khan knew that she was going to change everything. He had not taken any of the girls who had been offered to him in Syria. Women came to the Caliphate to serve as brides to the warriors fighting against the forces of Assad. Shahid had felt no desire for their company, for the arrangement of marriage, for the physical benefits of a shared bed. He had felt that a woman would distract him from his commitment to the cause. In this respect he was unlike many of the other soldiers who were fighting inside Iraq and Syria. He knew that Jalal had sensed this and recognized that there was something different about him, something special. Jalal had seen the discipline and the focus in Shahid’s personality. This was one of the reasons why he had been chosen for the important operation in England.

Later we are told more about Shahid’s ultimate desire:

It was the destiny of Shahid Khan to avenge the Prophet. Shahid knew that his act of martyrdom would take him from Rosie, but that he would be rewarded in paradise with pleasures far greater than those he had known on this earth.

Again, Kell turns to MI6 with the information about the potential terrorist attack. Again, they doubt his facts and judgment and think he’s being played. Again, Kell is on his own.

Will Thomas Kell actually satisfy his desire to find justice for Rachel? Was Minasian actually responsible for Rachel’s senseless death? Or was it Moscow? Will Kell stop Shahid from killing? Will MI6 finally get on board? What about Rosie?

As this spy story twists and turns, we learn that we can’t even trust our own judgment. You have to turn the page to find out what happens next.

Read an excerpt from A Divided Spy or take a visual tour with GIFnotes!

 

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Dorothy H. Hayes is the author of Murder at the P&Z and Broken Window from Mainly Murder Press. She’s been known to blog at Women of Mystery. 

Read all posts by Dorothy H. Hayes for Criminal Element.

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