‘A Colder War’ by Charles Cumming spins spy intrigue in search for a diabolical mole

August 3, 2014

Two spies — one from the CIA, one from England’s Secret Intelligence Service — share a vigil at a window in a small town in Turkey, near the Iranian border. They’re watching anxiously for a Mercedes that is supposed to bring an Iranian scientist, a prized informant, across the border for transport to London. The Englishman, Paul Wallinger, doesn’t like the talkative American and doesn’t like these joint operations with the CIA, whose members he and his colleagues call, without affection, the Cousins. Finally, the Mercedes comes into view, “barely visible against the parched brown landscape.” Victory is within their grasp until, without warning, a fiery explosion demolishes the Mercedes.

“What the hell happened?” the American asks.

Wallinger turns from the window. “You tell me,” he replies.

Thus begins Charles Cumming’s compelling new spy novel, “A Colder War.”

Soon disaster strikes again. Taking off in a small plane for a weekend with his mistress, Wallinger is killed when the plane crashes. As this happens, the protagonist of the novel, Wallinger’s friend and fellow SIS veteran Tom Kell is drinking beer in a London pub. Kell’s life is a mess. His wife is divorcing him, and he’s been suspended from duty for his involvement in “the aggressive CIA interrogation of a British national in Kabul.”


"A Colder War" by Charles Cumming. (St. Martin's)

For the 44-year-old Kell, his friend’s death might bring professional salvation. He’s quickly called by Amelia Levene, who is both his friend and, as chief of SIS, his boss. She sends him to investigate the death of Wallinger (who, in a story replete with complex entanglements, was her longtime lover). Was the plane crash an accident or foul play? Was it connected to the failure of the mission to bring out the Iranian defector? If so, SIS may be dealing with a mole — a turncoat — either in its own ranks or in the CIA. This possibility terrifies the SIS, which has never forgotten the damage caused by Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and the other “Cambridge Spies” in the postwar years.

Kell, who was introduced in Cumming’s 2012 novel, “A Foreign Country,” hastens to Istanbul, where Wallinger was the senior SIS agent. He meets and falls in love with Wallinger’s gorgeous daughter Rachel. Of course, in his world no one can be fully trusted, and romance is always shadowed by doubt. Kell must also ask himself whether Wallinger’s mistress was a Russian agent. Or might Wallinger himself have been turned?

Kell’s search for the traitor is complex, dangerous and well-told. Cumming is particularly good with the subtleties of the relationships among his characters. In Kell’s case, this involves his unhappiness about his divorce; his uncertainties about his boss, Amelia; and his suspicions about his lover, Rachel.

My only complaint about the novel concerns a plot twist involving Rachel that is dramatic but too slick. Still, the book remains hard to put down. Even after the mole is identified, serious problems remain because the other side — the Russian spy agency — is well equipped with resources and ruthlessness.

Cumming’s prose is always lean and effective, but I was struck by the many times he injected phrases and descriptions so nice that I stopped to savor them. Kell on an airplane is “jammed in a window seat, trying to avoid touching thighs with an overweight businesswoman who kept falling asleep in a Trollope novel.” Wallinger’s widow at the funeral is “frozen in what Kell assumed was a medicated grief.” Kell at Gatwick Airport is “back in the dreary routine of twenty-first-century flying: the long, agitated queues; the liquids farcically bagged; the shoes and belts pointlessly removed.” A woman “crossed the room and invited Kell to enter with a flourish of bosom and bonhomie.” He encounters a young woman, and “it was good to hear the music of her voice again, the mischief in it.”

Interestingly, these flourishes are less frequent in the second half of the novel, perhaps because the growing momentum of his story compelled Cumming to focus on plot over phrase-making. This is the 43-year-old British author’s seventh novel. His work has won him rave reviews, numerous prizes and a place among the best of today’s spy novelists, along with the likes of Alan Furst, David Ignatius and Olen Steinhauer. If you’re a fan of their novels, you’ll probably enjoy his as well.

Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post.

A COLDER WAR

By Charles Cumming

St. Martin’s.

388 pp. $26.99

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