Charles Cumming


"A Spy By Nature"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew DEC 3, 2007)

"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."

British subject Alec Milius is young, cocky, and unwilling to live his life "suspended between brilliance and mediocrity." He wants to make his mark in the world, not let it make its mark on him. Highly competitive and at root actually insecure, Alec sizes up everyone he encounters, testing their perceived weaknesses and attempting to turn them to his advantage. At age 24, he feels he's been handed the short end of the stick because he attended the London School of Economics rather than Oxford or Cambridge, and then fell into a fraudulent telemarketing job. So when an old school friend of his deceased father recommends him as a candidate for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), aka, MI6, he jumps at it.

The first hundred pages of A Spy By Nature follow Alec as he navigates through interviews, intelligence tests, and group exercises with four other applicants. Everything is seen through Alec's perspective, including the others whom he meticulously dissects in his mind. He calculates his every move, plotting his contributions to a discussion about international relations as if he were playing chess, declining to evaluate himself for the written record, and choosing, in a one-on-one with a shrink, to lie about his current relationship with his former girlfriend, Kate.

Notified of the selection board's decision, Alec considers it another unfair assessment of his worth, and his state of mind leaves him ripe for recruitment to a lower level espionage operation. Soon, Alec is working "undercover" for an oil company. His mission is to become friendly with an American couple suspected of being industrial spies intent on obtaining strategic oil field data. Alec is confident he can play secret agent with the best of them. But the young man, who overestimates his own abilities and underestimates the stresses and dangers of this one-upmanship between two "allies," soon makes clumsy and unalterable mistakes. Too late, Alec realizes the big boys play for keeps, and he isn't a "big boy"....

The book jacket relates that Charles Cumming, the author of A Spy By Nature, went through a vetting process when he was approached by the SIS in 1995. This accounts for the detailed knowledge he exhibits of the "Sisby" (Civil Service Selection Board) which Alec takes. One would hope that the rest of Cumming's skillfully rendered plot is a product of his imagination rather than experience, but, regardless, the author constructs in narrator Alec a character whose self-delusions constrict him like a boa, and a plot that builds suspenseful dread as Alec slides into an untenable situation.

Not only does A Spy By Nature probe the requirements for being a "successful" spy, but it offers a fascinating character study of a young man who struggles to live a life filled with meaning, but whose own traits tear away his hopes in both private and professional arenas. This novel unhurriedly progresses through lengthy conversations between Alec and other memorable characters and his private mental ruminating and scheming. This is a cerebral spy story that achieves tragic climax without incorporating overblown action scenes. It's a superb piece of fiction that, aside from invading Alec's psyche, also delivers a keen warning about men (and women) who count on our willingness to rely on their seeming goodwill for our safety and peace of mind. They would not count themselves as corrupt. They would call themselves patriots and masters of fate. But Alec, who in many ways is naturally deceptive and corrupt, learns how fallacious such reliance is. In a contest between Alec and the pros in the shadowy world of espionage, it would appear Alec is destined to again get the short end of the stick....

  • Amazon readers rating: from 30 reviews


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About the Author:

Charles CummingCharles 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. He is a contributing editor of The Week magazine, and occasionally writes book reviews for The Mail on Sunday.

In the summer of 1995, Charles was approached for recruitment by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). A year later he moved to Montreal where he began working on a novel based on his experiences with MI6. A Spy By Nature was bought in a two-book deal by Penguin in 1999.

 

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