Beyond the Book: Background information when reading A Spy by Nature

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A Spy by Nature

A Novel

by Charles Cumming

A Spy by Nature by Charles Cumming
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2007, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2008, 368 pages

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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 he began working on a novel based on his experiences with the SIS. A Spy By Nature was bought in a two-book deal by Penguin in 1999. It was published in 2001 in the UK, but not until 2007 in the USA (by St Martins Press). The Hidden Man followed in 2003, and a second novel about Alec Milius, The Spanish Game, was published in 2006. The Hidden Man will be published in the USA in 2008 and The Spanish Game in 2009. Cumming has just finished Run, set in China, which will be published in the UK in March 2008.

Cumming moved to Madrid with his wife in 2001, returning to London in 2005, where he is a contributing editor of The Week magazine, occasionally writes book reviews for The Mail on Sunday, and is working on a novel about China.

About SIS
According to SIS's informative website, a formal and permanent British intelligence service was first established in 1909; but the history of British intelligence organizations engaged in foreign intelligence goes back at least to the 15th century (Thomas Cromwell ran secret agents in Europe on behalf of Henry VIII and Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's "spymaster", maintained a network of 50 secret agents abroad and a substantial network in Britain.

The first head of the Service was Captain Sir Mansfield Cumming RN (no relation to Charles), who signed himself "MC" or "C" in green ink. This began the tradition of the head of the Service adopting the initial 'C' as his symbol (the inspiration for James Bond's 'M'). During World War I, the Foreign Office, and therefore the Secret Service Bureau, was effectively integrated into the the Military Intelligence Directorate, where it was known as MI1 - one of ten military intelligence units established by the end of WWI.

After the War, Cumming managed to engineer the return of the Service to Foreign Office control, and in the 1920s it became known as SIS. During the 1930s the title M16 was adopted as a "flag of convenience" for SIS and was used extensively during World War II - it was one of 17 military intelligence units established by the British during the war. 'M16' fell out of official use years ago but many writers and journalists still use it to describe SIS.

Fun link: Take SIS's test to see if you'd be a good recruit (I failed dismally!)

This article is from the August 9, 2007 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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