A Colder War
I have been anticipating a new Charles Cumming novel ever since I read A FOREIGN COUNTRY, which was published two years ago and introduced readers to a disgraced and defrocked spy named Tom Kell. I was hoping that Cumming would bring Kell back for at least another round, and indeed he has, within the pages of A COLDER WAR, which fulfills and exceeds the promise of its predecessor.
Kell is a former agent of MI6 who was scapegoated in an interrogation scandal involving the CIA --- the “cousins” --- some years previously. He was unofficially brought back into the fold in A FOREIGN COUNTRY when Amelia Levene, the first female head of MI6, vanished. Kell was tasked with finding her and uncovering the reason for her disappearance; he was successful in both missions, but still found himself at loose professional ends at the close of the story. He is given another shot at redemption and professional status in A COLDER WAR by Levene herself --- known as “C” --- when a series of seemingly unrelated but troubling incidents occur around the world. They include the early morning arrest and incarceration of a Turkish journalist; the explosive death of an Iranian military official as he is defecting to the West; and the assassination of a scientist working on Iran’s nuclear program. These three events have one element in common: all involved individuals who had been recruited by Western intelligence.
"A COLDER WAR is complete in itself, but the conclusion leads into what almost certainly will be a third book in the series. Hopefully there will be more coming beyond that.... one of the best books of 2014 thus far."
It is a fourth incident, though, that is the most troubling to Levene. Paul Wallinger, the most senior agent of MI6 in Turkey, dies in a plane crash that appears to be an accident but is nonetheless suspicious. His death is particularly disturbing to C on a personal level due to an intimate relationship she carried on with Wellinger intermittently throughout the years. C brings in Kell, one of the very few people aware of this, to investigate Wallinger’s death and determine if what appears to be the case is in fact the truth: that there is a mole in Western intelligence who is undermining its operations.
MI6 does not lack for suspects, either within its own ranks or among the “cousins,” and a good deal of the first half of the book is spent narrowing the field. Cumming slowly but steadily drops hints as to who the culprit might be, and then spends roughly the second half watching Kell gather up proof and ultimately bring the traitor down. It is a case not so much of hot pursuit as cool pursuit; Cumming, as well as anyone writing today, can quietly wring excruciating suspense from a narrative by alternating points of view during, for example, a stroll along the beach. And while Kell is ultimately successful in his mission, his success comes at a great cost. Already badly damaged by what has gone before, he will not emerge from his latest adventure entirely whole.
A COLDER WAR is complete in itself, but the conclusion leads into what almost certainly will be a third book in the series. Hopefully there will be more coming beyond that. Kell is a tragic hero in the truest sense of the term, and in Cumming’s hands is one of the most memorable protagonists in contemporary espionage fiction. The wait for the next installment will be worth it, even if that day doesn't come for another two years. For now, though, we have A COLDER WAR, one of the best books of 2014 thus far.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 15, 2014