A Spy By Nature, Charles Cumming's first
novel, has drawn comparisons to Len Deighton and the early works
of John le Carré. If we must make comparison to Le Carré, and
when reviewing spy novels it seems de rigueur to do so, it would
not be to the early Smiley novels but to Le Carré's more recent
works such as Absolute Friends, set in the post Cold-War
period when the lines between state-sponsored and private sector
intelligence have blurred.
We first meet Alec Milius in a dead-end job selling advertising space in the Central European Business Review, a publication of dubious reputation*. Through a chance contact he is invited to apply to the Secret Intelligent Service (SIS). Having gone through the rigorous selection process he is placed in a covert position as a support agent inside a British oil company with contracts in Eastern Europe.
At first Alec relishes his secret life but as time goes by the elaborate deceits and double crossing become exhausting and he finds the weight of lies brought on by living a false life increasingly burdensome. His life is not remotely glamorous and what he is fighting for is not the freedom of the Western world but whether a company's stock price will rise or fall by a few dollars or pounds.
As a character, Alec is difficult to like. He feels that he has drawn the short straw in life but has never quite got his act together to do much about it; occasionally, his actions border on the idiotic (but who are we to say how another would react under stress); and he is so lacking in personal charm that readers who prefer to spend their time with protagonists that they like might want to look elsewhere. However, putting aside the protagonist's character faults, this is a well-researched first book (see sidebar for more on this) with a surprisingly exciting and unexpected ending, which illuminates the decidedly unglamorous world of industrial espionage.
Interesting to note: The inevitable question asked of most first novels is how much of it is autobiographical? It is clear that Milius's recruitment experience is based on Cumming's own, but what about his character? This reviewer would hazard a guess that Cumming and Milius have little in common on the basis of one small but interesting detail - Charles Cumming's website is the only one I can recollect visiting where less than positive book reviews share equal space with the glowing ones, which would appear to indicate a certain openness on the author's part - not a character trait shared by Alec Milius!
*The fictitious Central European Business Review claims to publish extensively across Europe but actually publishes only a handful of copies which are sent to advertisers and a few other key contacts. Scams similar to this are all too frequent, although usually on a more local scale. For example, a local business is persuaded to buy advertising in a calendar that will be sent to all residents and businesses in their area. The price seems reasonable and the target market is spot on, so it seems a good deal. However, in cases where the publisher is dishonest, the print run is likely to be a fraction of what is claimed - just enough to provide copies to the business that have advertised and a few select residences/businesses in their immediate vicinity. The moral of the story - always verify the claimed circulation!
This review is from the August 9, 2007 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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