Summary and book reviews of A Spy by Nature by Charles Cumming

A Spy by Nature

A Novel

By Charles Cumming

A Spy by Nature
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  • Hardcover: Jul 2007,
    368 pages.
    Paperback: Nov 2008,
    368 pages.

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Book Summary

This is what they told me a long time ago.
Only make contact in the event of an emergency.
Only telephone if you believe that your position has been fatally compromised.
Under no circumstances are you to approach us unless it is absolutely necessary in order to preserve the security of the operation.
This is the number.


Alec Milius is young, smart, and ambitious. He also has a talent for deception. He is working in a dead-end job when a chance encounter leads him to MI6, the elite British Secret Intelligence Service, handing him an opportunity to play center-stage in a dangerous game of espionage.

In his new line of work, Alec finds that the difference between the truth and a lie can mean the difference between life and death—and he is having trouble telling them apart. Isolated and exposed, he must play a role in which the slightest glance or casual remark can seem heavy with unintended menace. Caught between British and American Intelligence, Alec finds himself threatened and alone, unable to confide in even his closest friend. His life as a spy begins to exact a terrible price, both on himself and on those around him.

Richly atmospheric and chillingly plausible, A Spy By Nature announces the arrival of British author Charles Cumming as heir apparent to masters like John le Carré and Len Deighton. A bestseller in England, it’s the gripping story of a young man driven by ruthless ambition who finds himself chasing not just success, but survival.

Chapter One

An Exploratory Conversation

The door leading into the building is plain and unadorned, save for one highly polished handle. No sign outside saying foreign and commonwealth office, no hint of top brass. There is a small ivory bell on the right-hand side, and I push it. The door, thicker and heavier than it appears, is opened by a fit-looking man of retirement age, a uniformed policeman on his last assignment.

“Good afternoon, sir.”

“Good afternoon. I have an interview with Mr. Lucas at two o’clock.”

“The name, sir?”

“Alec Milius.”

“Yes, sir.”

This almost condescending. I have to sign my name in a book and then he hands me a security dog tag on a silver chain, which I slip into the hip pocket of my suit trousers.

“Just take a seat beyond the stairs. Someone will be down to see you in a moment.”

The wide, high-ceilinged hall beyond the reception area exudes all the ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

A well-researched novel with a surprisingly exciting and unexpected ending, which illuminates the decidedly unglamorous world of industrial espionage.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (1058 words).

Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Smartly paced and intricately plotted, Cumming's decidedly unglamorous look at industrial espionage provides plenty of elaborate deceits, double crosses and other trappings of a first-class spy thriller.

The Spectator - Charles Mitchell

Alec Milius, the protagonist of Charles Cumming's A Spy by Nature, has bagfuls of self-pity, but unfortunately he doesn't seem to have many other features or qualities, besides a rather shallow and self-regarding intelligence. This is a deliberate, but misguided, choice by Cumming, whose plot turns on the fact that Milius is a chippy loser who falls to pieces when placed by MI6 at the heart of an industrial espionage scam. It seemed implausible to me that MI6, or anyone else for that matter, would employ someone who was quite so obviously a broken reed, although I suppose that Cumming might invoke David Shayler to refute this point. The real weakness of this book, though, is that Milius has too little charm for the reader to want to spend much time with him. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it can also be less interesting.

The Mirror - Andrea Henry

Cumming's first novel is an intense study of the world of espionage. The Cold War may be over but for underachieving, 24-year-old Alec, the intelligence service is a viable career option. Rather than finding glamour and glory in his new guise, Alec discovers that the fake relationships he forges aren't what trouble him, it's the genuine ones he's left behind that are twisting his mind. Cumming ventures calmly and collectedly into the spy's psyche, but as the plot peters out you find yourself aching for the excitement of some James Bond-style fantasy to spice it all up.

Sunday Telegraph (UK)

The book is well researched and deftly plotted, and though there is a clear debt to Deighton and le Carre, Cumming never seems like a mere imitator. His prose is efficient, rather than stylish, too many of the supporting characters fail to come to life, and there are moments when his "spy by nature" behaves so foolishly that one feels like screaming. Nevertheless, in its exciting closing stages, it is a book one would be seriously annoyed to have to put down, and the ending leaves the way tantalizingly open for what could prove an even stronger sequel.

Literary Review - Philip Oakes

Witty, well-observed and glinting with quotable axioms. Most signally, though, a book that's written with a real loathing of espionage: self-justifying, ruthless and corrupting. A strong and serious entertainment; don't miss.

Mail on Sunday - Andrew Roberts

From my own reminiscences of the procedure seven years before Cumming was himself accepted into the service (he trained for a short time before deciding to become a writer), I can attest that it is absolutely accurate in every detail, down to the appearance of the buildings, wording of the correspondence and nature of the cognitive tests. Anyone wishing to join the Secret Intelligence Service should certainly buy this book before undergoing the recruitment process ... For once, that is definitely not the teaser that spy writers habitually employ: Cumming writes it like it is.

Author Blurb Boris Starling, author of Vodka and Messiah
Who among us has never dreamed of being a spy? Charles Cumming takes this conceit and runs with it, pitching his everyman hero Alec Milius into ever-widening circles of betrayal and deceit. But Milius is no ersatz James Bond and there are no amphibious cars or exploding pens in sight, and the book is all the better for it. Cumming writes beautifully, equally at home with the broad brushstrokes of international geopolitics as he is with the finer dabs of nuance and subtlety .... It would be accurate but patronising to call this an excellent debut novel. It is an excellent novel full stop.

Author Blurb Robert Harris, author of Pompeii and Enigma
A wonderfully assured first novel. It has the ring of absolute authenticity. Tautly written, cleverly plotted...it reminded me strongly of the early books of John le Carré.

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Beyond the Book

Charles Cumming was born in Ayr, Scotland in 1971. He was educated at Eton and graduated from the University of Edinburgh with First Class Honours in English Literature in 1994. In the summer of 1995, he was approached for recruitment by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6. The recruitment process described in A Spy By Nature is apparently based closely on his own experience to the point that he has been accused of breaking the spirit of the Officials Secret Act (as explained in an essay on his website).

A year later he moved to Montreal where ...

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