Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Perils of a Double Life in the Spy Thrillers of Charles Cumming

Author Charles Cumming.

What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs?
John le Carré, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. 
The good spies are invariably introspective and thoughtful.
Charles Cumming.

Lying and duplicity are essential traits if a spy is to practice his tradecraft of espionage. As a result, he could be like Alec Milius, the central character of the Scottish writer, Charles Cumming’s debut novel, A Spy by Nature (2001) and his later book, The Spanish Game (2006). Milius is a self-absorbed opportunist whose motivation, rather than being ideological, is financial gain and the “kick and the buzz” from the adrenalin that flows from being in the game. Similarly, the self-serving CIA agent, Miles Coolidge, in Typhoon (2008) disregards official CIA policy by organizing clandestine terrorist attacks in order to destabilize China on the eve of the Beijing Olympics. Yet one of the many virtues of reading a Cumming’s thriller is his multifaceted depiction of intelligent agents. Take, for example, Joe Lennox, the British agent operating under deep cover in Hong Kong in Typhoon. Despite his criticism of Bush and Blair for the fiasco in Iraq, Lennox is a patriot who believes in Queen and Country and the importance of safeguarding Western values. Thomas Kell, who has been sacked from SIS (MI6) because of a torture scandal in Kabul and the protagonist of Cumming’s most recent novel, A Foreign Country (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), is equally a complex figure. Like all of Cumming’s spies, Kell cannot conceive of an alternative to working in the secret world. Nonetheless, he is disturbed by his own passive complicity in the aggressive CIA interrogation of a terrorist suspect and his willingness to agree to the outsourcing of torture so that others could do the dirty work. When given another opportunity to interrogate a kidnapper who knows the whereabouts of an innocent man whose life is at stake, Kell redeems himself. He conducts an interview à la the real life former FBI officer, Ali Soufan, who managed to achieve astonishing intelligence results by “rapport building” and treating the terrorist suspect with respect rather than resorting to aggressive methods that Soufan considered were often counterproductive. Kell’s interrogation similarly achieves desirable results and demonstrates that agents can do their work without trashing the principles that some of them profess to believe in. He is simultaneously critical of leftists who demonstrate “their own unimpeachable moral conduct, at the expense of the very people who were striving to keep them safe in their beds.”

Working in the shadows where duplicity is a way of life does carry a high price, particularly for those who do not possess a moral compass. In Spy by Nature that focuses on industrial espionage, Alec Milius is given his first assignment at a British oil company to establish a personal relationship with two American CIA officers working undercover at a rival oil company and feed them disinformation about the Caspian Sea area. They in turn try to turn him into a double agent with the lure of a huge amount of money. Because of his greed, he recklessly overplays his hand by participating in a sting operation against the CIA. Disastrous results ensue not only because he earns the enmity of both agencies – he becomes the convenient scapegoat for SIS when British relations with the “Cousins” become strained – but he likely caused three civilian deaths, one of them is his former fiancé. He also has no qualms about risking the life of his only friend, Saul Ricken, by entrusting his secrets to him as a guarantee against CIA retaliation. 

Almost six years later in The Spanish Game, Milius is in Madrid living in anonymity trying to keep below the radar of SIS and the CIA in order to avoid reprisal for having compromised the “special relationship” between England and America. He acts as though he is being followed and he gives a false name to everyone he meets. He earns a living as a consultant to an English banker. His only distraction is an affair with his boss’s Spanish wife to whom he cannot make a commitment or reveal to her any of his past. When Ricken visits him, he believes that his friend has been commissioned to track him down. These personal entanglements, built on mistrust and suspicion, provide the background for Milius’ involvement in the 2003 Basque nationalist movement. When a Basque politician, whom Milius befriended, goes missing and is presumed dead, he investigates not because he wants to find out what happened to his friend but because of his realization that he misses the “electrical” feeling of being “back at the center of things.” By his actions and his desire to prove his worth in the “secret game,” he comes to the attention of SIS and CIA and he becomes vulnerable to being manipulated by both agencies, especially the CIA that relishes the prospect of settling old scores. When Milius is approached by an agent presenting himself as a SIS officer who seeks to enlist his skills in ferreting out members in the Spanish government suspected of funding a “dirty war” against Basque separatists, he seizes the opportunity but it should come as no surprise that he is double-crossed. Because Milius’ life has been based on lies and deceit, he does not possess the moral fibre to distinguish between genuine personal relationships and the world of intrigue which invariably involves betrayal.

Even the private life of Cumming’s more sympathetic spies is damaged by the demands of the tradecraft – and more unscrupulous agents. In Typhoon, professional and personal entanglements become intertwined. At the outset, Joe Lennox interviews a Chinese academic who discloses a vivid account of the Chinese government’s mistreatment of ethnic Uighurs who are Muslims living in northwestern China that includes arrest, torture and summary execution. Lennox is sensitive to these human rights abuses, but before he can decide whether there is substance to the story or he is a plant double agent, the academic is spirited away in the middle of the night and recruited as a CIA agent by his counterpart, Miles Coolidge. Set against the brash Coolidge, Lennox is a quiet-spoken decent gentleman who is again outmaneuvered by his cutthroat rival who seduces the lovely Isabella Aubert. Joe, in love with Isabella, wants to marry and reveal to her that his job as a political advisor is a cover for being an SIS agent. Before he can receive official permission, the philandering Coolidge hatches a scheme to undermine the relationship and win her over as his wife, dooming her to an unhappy marriage. Although Isabella does not reappear until late in the novel, her spirit shadows Joe’s every move. Protecting her from serious harm motivates his actions as much as thwarting a terrorist scheme. In A Foreign Country, Thomas Kell’s marriage is in disarray. He realizes that the qualities that made him a good spook – “his charm and cunning…his imagination and flair for deceit” – which in his hall of mirrors made everyone a target of suspicion did not render him a good husband and potential father. His refusal to have children was the most decisive factor in ending the marriage.

In Trinity Six, the major character is Sam Gaddis who is not a spy but a British historian living beyond his means, supporting his ex-wife and child living in Spain, while conducting an affair with a younger woman, to whom he seems incapable of making a commitment. While Cumming derives inspiration from the well-known Cambridge spies who were recruited in the 1930s, his conceit is to imagine a sixth double agent who has hithertofore been undetected. Gaddis is presented with a cache of documents by a journalist friend that will establish the identity of that sixth spy. When the journalist is soon assassinated by the Russian intelligent service, he decides to pursue what she had begun and hopefully write a best-selling book that would erase his enormous debts. As an historian, Gaddis possesses the skills to discover that the SIS faked the death of the sixth spy and to track down his identity and whereabouts. But he is no professional who can navigate the secret world and successfully outwit the Russian FSB which will eliminate anyone who comes close to revealing a highly guarded secret, sometimes with the collusion of the potentates at SIS. Fortunately, Gaddis is saved by the resourcefulness and skill of a beautiful British agent, Tanya Acocella, who impersonates a librarian to keep tabs on him until circumstances in Berlin force her to blow her cover. Ironically, only Tanya, among Cumming’s spies has managed to maintain a happy personal life since she is engaged to be married. The reader can look forward to another installment with Tanya to see whether she can continue that balancing act.

Cumming’s thrillers convey the authenticity of the phantasmagoric world because they are well researched. The books he consulted and the people who assisted him are cited at the back of each novel. He and his wife lived three years in Madrid as preparation for The Spanish Game. Moreover, his deep reading of his predecessors, especially le Carré, attests to the careful preparation that goes into each novel. Cumming also draws upon his personal experience. He was recruited by SIS shortly after graduating from university. The first part of A Spy by Nature, in which Alec Milius is given a three-day battery of interviews and tests as a prospective agent of SIS, is directly based on Cumming’s publicly acknowledged experience. Although successful in the vetting process, he left the service shortly afterward and did not work in the field though he admits he still has contacts. It may be that he left the secret world because he wanted to preserve personal relations and avoid the fate of his fictional characters. 

(photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, is available now. For more information, please visit http://www.thatlineofdarkness.com/.

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