BookBrowse Reviews A Colder War by Charles Cumming

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

A Colder War

by Charles Cumming

A Colder War by Charles Cumming X
A Colder War by Charles Cumming
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Aug 2014, 400 pages
    Jun 2015, 400 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

Buy This Book

About this Book



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.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access, become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Diving into the Spy's Psyche

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: American Prison
    American Prison
    by Shane Bauer
    After spending over two years in Iran's notorious Evin Prison for supposedly crossing the country's ...
  • Book Jacket: Small Fry
    Small Fry
    by Lisa Brennan-Jobs
    Small Fry is the debut memoir from Lisa Brennan-Jobs, long-time journalist and writer, and oldest ...
  • Book Jacket: The Winter Soldier
    The Winter Soldier
    by Daniel Mason
    Imagine the thousands of confounding cases doctors face routinely for which diagnoses are hard to ...
  • Book Jacket: Brother
    by David Chariandy
    Brother is the brief, moving account of how a single, tragic moment in time can alter the course of ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

A crowning achievement of one of the finest American writers at work today.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    French Exit
    by Patrick deWitt

    A brilliant and darkly comic novel from bestselling author Patrick deWitt.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Clockmaker's Daughter

The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton

A rich, spellbinding new novel from the author of The Lake House. On sale Oct 9.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

T Turn T S

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.