BookBrowse Reviews A Colder War by Charles Cumming

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A Colder War

by Charles Cumming

A Colder War by Charles Cumming X
A Colder War by Charles Cumming
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2014, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2015, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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M16 agent Tom Kell is back in this tour de force by internationally acclaimed spy novelist Charles Cumming.

Charles Cumming writes about spies with an acid-burnt edge of short, staccato chapters that spill information piecemeal on a need-to-know basis and build in true espionage fashion to a teeth-rattling implosion. Cold. So cold indeed. Scary cold.

A Colder War rejoins protagonist Thomas Kell, (A Foreign Country, St. Martin's Press, 2012) an involuntarily retired MI6 agent or "spook" as they are known in the trade, given to feelings of such loss that he often suspects he has disappeared into himself. He was driven to retirement by the actions of one Jim Chater, an American (called "Cousins") counterpart in a nasty scandal involving torture. Kell isn't resentful. No. Not much. Okay, a lot. But, hey, that's all part of the game. And game it is. Characters, suspects all, move about Europe and the Middle East like unfettered chess pieces. They are neither white nor black but varying shades of gray. Every now and then pieces (people) drop off the board (life). And when too many bodies start to pile up the players must take notice and take action.

Such is the beginning of A Colder War. A car bomb kills an informant. A young investigative political reporter is arrested in her home in the dawning hours after a debauched night spent with a mysterious new beau. Paul Wallinger, one of Kell's former spook colleagues, dies in a suspicious private plane crash. So MI6 Chief, Amelia Levene, calls on Kell to return to service, and take on the investigation of a leak that threatens to rend the diaphanous spider web of UK/US relations and more. Kell should feel good. Right?

"You're back in the game, he told himself. This is what you wanted. But the buzz had gone." And so ensues the psyche-diving that rounds out Cumming's characters to become, as Kell himself says, "the sum of our contradictions. The sum of our mistakes." And they all make mistakes, mistakes that threaten lives, threaten to topple lower-case empires, mistakes that add depth and uncertainty as to just exactly who is whom.

Another character, an informant, thinks of his profession as an "addiction," wondering, "Where do these impulses come from? Why had he turned out this way? Why did he always make the same rotten decisions?" And finally thinking he might get caught, speculating, "Perhaps it was what he wanted. A release from his secret life. A release from all the guilt. The shame."

These are intense characterizations, made more so by the nonchalance of facing off against enemies – personal and political – that is integral to the job description. In his first meeting with Chater since the ugly incident that cost Kell his job, each is as chillingly savvy at the parry-and-thrust as the other. Even though Kell is not being interrogated, even though they are meeting as equals, Chater baits him:

Kell recognized the interrogator's trick. "We both want answers," he replied, ducking under the provocation. "The past is a foreign country."

A sound came out of Chater's nose like a man having difficulty identifying the source of an unusual smell. He began to smile.

He smiled. Cumming conveys so much in a single gesture. Chater and Kell are a perfect match for one another. They both want the challenge. I wanted a sweater.

Although wearing a sweater is not a requirement while reading A Colder War, it might provide a modicum of protection against the chills Cumming so calmly inflicts via his crackerjack depiction of international espionage.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

This review was originally published in September 2014, and has been updated for the June 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Diving into the Spy's Psyche

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