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by Charles Cumming
St Martin's Press, July 2007
368 pages
ISBN: 0312366353

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Originally published in the UK in 2001, A SPY BY NATURE has been brought stateside by St Martinís Press. The novel works well on both sides of the pond, incorporating both MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence Service) and the United Statesí Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) into this story of industrial spying between countries supposedly in a Special Relationship, yet nonetheless unofficially guarded against each other.

Author Charles Cumming created the novel based on his own experiences being recruited by MI6, and because of this, the story rings true from the beginning. The spy-in-training in this story is Alec Milius, a graduate of the London School of Economics, who finds himself in his mid-20s in a dead-end job with little hope of a meaningful life or career. Heís estranged from Kate, the love of his life; only his best friend Saul seems to understand Alec, but Saulís own career has taken off, leaving Alec feeling even more alone and desperate for a new start.

A chance meeting with an old friend of his fatherís leads to the opportunity Alec has been looking for Ė the possibility of working for MI6. The storyís strength lies in showing us all of the emotional background that is occurring within Alec as he goes through the MI6 vetting process and begins his first assignment, to lure two Americans into a relationship while working for a British oil company exploring the Caspian Sea area.

These Americans want Alec to spy on his own company, passing along confidential documents. Only Alecís handlers and he know the true nature of his activities, and he must carry them out under the watchful eye of a suspicious colleague.

Cumming has done an exemplary job of evoking within his readers the same emotional landscape that Alec is experiencing Ė the dodgy moves, the omnipresent fear of being discovered stealing documents or being found out by his CIA contacts, and ultimately, fear for his own life and that of the person to whom he reveals himself. The pressure is too much, and Alecís confession leads to a disaster greater than any he could have imagined.

In addition to capturing the emotional strains and sheer fear of the life of a spy, Cumming has also given us real characters: flawed, yet trying to do their best in the messy business of life. He provides real food for thought about the nature of enemies and friends, whether referring to countries or individuals.

And he brings the age of the spy novel into the 21st century, where concerns about the Cold War have given way to anxiety about economic dominance. This well-written novel has many layers, each of which seem to center on what it means to be a spy, a very interesting concept indeed.

Reviewed by Christine Zibas, August 2007

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