Just when you thought it was safe to go back to spying… Charles Cumming’s A Colder War
It hardly needs saying, but spying did not stop with the collapse of Communism. But if spying continued, it naturally follows that so did betrayal. The haunting question provoked by every betrayal is, “Why?” Perhaps it was easier to understand during the Cold War. The globe’s ideological map was drawn all too clearly. However flawed the enemy might be, believing in their ideological stance always made it forgiving those flaws much easier. But what about today? What if practically everyone has boarded the good ship capitalism, even if with varying degrees of enthusiasm (and with N Korea and Cuba more or less the only dissenters)? It is especially more curious when nationalism and the flexing of raw power seems to be on the rise – as we are currently witnessing in Ukraine.
BBC correspondent Gordon Correra’s history of MI6 makes an intriguing point:
Where the early British traitors [Burgess and Maclean, Philby] had been ideological, the CIA’s traitors [Ames, Hanssen] were utterly venal. The damage was the same. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 the head of the CIA’s Soviet division learnt everything from CNN because he had no agents left to report to him on what was unfolding. Just like MI6 in the 1950s the CIA was institutionally unwilling to accept the idea that it might be penetrated. (Corera p285)
This is the background that haunts A Colder War, Charles Cumming’s sequel to his first Thomas Kell novel, A Foreign Country (reviewed here). Both books revolve around the dynamic between Kell and MI6’s first female boss Amelia Levene. Both concern potentially damaging questions arising from Levene’s past – in the first book it was a long-lost son; in this it is a (former?) lover and colleague, Paul Wallinger. Both concern frightening dilemmas in the Middle East and have the relationship with the ‘cousins’ in the CIA lurking in the background.
It is not a significant plot-spoil to say that Paul’s death (as well other operational disasters) trigger Kell & Levene’s under the radar molehunt. Wallinger had been one of Kell’s closest friends, and his daughter Rachel is key to this book’s emotional heart. But the transatlantic relationship would again be severely tested by whoever gets unmasked – if British, would it be the final nail in CIA-MI6 cooperation coffin and potentially catastrophic to Levene’s standing?
Haunted by two ghosts
But how do you successfully craft a mole-hunt after Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? Cumming has set himself a daunting challenge. The book is haunted by George Smiley, and haunted is not too strong a word. Smiley’s ghost lurks on every page – Kell even walks past Bywater St where Smiley lived! But Cumming pulls it off.
This is largely because we are not kept guessing about the mole’s identity for long (it’s revealed half-way through). The introduction to the possible culprits is half-hearted to say the least (it did feel a bit of a disappointment, until I realised the point). Cumming’s skill is demonstrated by the intrigue and danger deriving not from the mole’s identity, but from Kell’s pursuit, against the backdrop of the inscrutability of CIA and SVR (former KGB) agendas. This is crucial – it’s what keeps us turning the pages, especially in the final third.
We discover fairly early on that the unmasked mole is working for the Russians. The key question, then, is still why? It is hard to imagine an ideological motivation for serving Putin’s cause? Here Kell responds to Levene’s question about traitors’ profiles:
‘You know there’s such a thing as a profile.’ Kell retrieved the lines from Sudoplatov, lodged in his memory for years. ‘“Search for men who are hurt by fate or nature. The ugly, people craving power or influence, people who have been defeated by circumstances.” Does that sound to you like Paul.’ Amelia did not respond. ‘Look at the historical record,’ Kell said. ‘Philby: sociopathic narcissist. Blunt: ditto. Burgess, Maclean, Cairncross: ideologues. Ames and Hanssen: cash and vanity. Paul doesn’t tick a single box. He never cared about money. He was vain, sure, but he was never short of women or colleagues telling him how wonderful he was. He was your golden boy.’
At the end of the line, Amelia sniffed and said: ‘So was Philby.’ Kell could picture her rolling her eyes. (p218)
Another person who haunts the pages of A Colder War is Edward Snowden. The book’s mole may have justified his actions by some virtuous libertarian agenda, but he’s still ended up in bed with the SVR. If The Economist’s Edward Lucas (who wrote Deception, reviewed here) is to be believed in his recent The Snowden Operation, the Wikileaks mole is utterly naive at best, a conniving saboteur in Putin’s pay at worst. This makes Kell’s scathing condemnation of Cumming’s mole resonate beyond the confines of fiction: “A sociopath dressing up betrayal as a moral position.” (p373) Furthermore…
*** was talking like an activist but it was no more than a pose. Treachery was treachery. *** could dress it up all he liked, but he no more cared about a villager in Waziristan than he cared about Rachel Wallinger. He had been motivated solely by self-aggrandizement. For such men it was not enough to affect events collectively; the narcissist had to put himself centre stage. The moral and philosophical arguments for ***’s behaviour could be all too easily made; it was just a question of self-persuasion. (p374)
This was about pleasure. The pleasure of manipulation. The joy of thumbing your nose at the state. The sadism of control over those whom you consider to be lesser mortals. you degrade the suffering and the complexity of the issues about which you profess to care by using them to validate your treachery. You slept with *** and you sent *** to prison. That is all anyone will ever need to know… (p380)
A World Not So Far Away
Kell’s world is not so far from the real world. The plot may not be as labyrinthine as le Carré, but there is a similar attention to detail and location – largely set in Istanbul, this book will be a particular joy for those who love that beguiling city. As one who visits it often (eg some happy snaps here), I was swiftly transported by the fluid but evocative writing. Kell reads the books and watches the DVDs that get the chattering classes chattering (Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak in Turkey, Christopher Hitchens and Julian Barnes, The Wire and Breaking Bad here) – in fact I couldn’t help wondering whether or not Kell visits Daunt Books whenever going on a foreign trip (see this previous post). The political atmosphere of the book is ours too – the muzzling of the press in Erdoğan’s Turkey and the chaos of post-Iraq Middle East are all complicating factors in the Spy vs Spy wilderness of mirrors. There are one or two slightly implausible moments (such as the Odessa scene) – but these are minor blips in what is a genuinely convincing and gripping narrative.
But none of that would matter if Kell, as well as Rachel, Amelia, Paul and the mole, were two-dimensional plot devices (which is frankly why many reasonably dismiss a lot of espionage fiction). If the first Kell book explored the moral dilemmas Cumming might have faced had he made it into MI6 himself (after being approached), this book takes us deeper into the personal decline and agony of experiencing betrayal. And this is what gives the book its emotional power. As a result, A Colder War is a tour de force.
If you are interested in more, Charlie and I recorded a conversation about a year ago, when he was presumably deep in the process of writing this. Find out more here.