Review: A Divided Spy

A novel by Charles Cumming. St. Martin’s Press, Feb. 14, 2017. 356 pages. (Advance hardcover edition reviewed)

Just a few months ago we thought the Cold War was long over, but now it seems to threaten us anew. Ever since John le Carré brought the dark world of spy-vs.-spy into modern popular fiction, it’s been a durable plot standard that has given millions of us many hours of entertainment with a scary side order of education.

Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy is an entertaining and thoroughly Le Carré-ish thriller set mainly in London. It’s the third featuring the ex-MI6 agent Thomas Kell, who in this book is a disaffected ex-agent, desolate because of the death of his girlfriend some months before, when he should have been euphoric because he’s successfully closed an important case.

A Divided Spy is the story of Kell’s hunt for the man, a Russian, he believes gave the order to kill the girlfriend, although he also blames his ex-chief as well.

Spy novels have evolved since Le Carré, not least because readers have evolved as well. Missing from this book is the bitter, hard-edged passion for the good side or the bad side. Instead, the characters are rounder, softer, more like educated Westerners of the Twenty-First Century. They aren’t so willing to break things. (Actually, a couple of them are, but they aren’t spies per se. More would be a spoiler.)

Cumming’s story reminded me a bit of Le Carré’s Carla books, the ones in which Smiley spends his career trying to entice the dark lord of Russian spycraft to come over to the other side. The reason he succeeds bears more than a passing resemblance to A Divided Spy, except that there’s much more of it in Cumming’s book.

And Cumming has taken the opportunity to throw in a terrorism subplot, an important one. What would any modern mystery be without ISIS?

If you read for the simple pleasure of the written word, you’ll find this one worth your time. Cumming’s technique is good — the plot and character elements are all in place, but you have to pay attention. Skip a sentence and you may find yourself puzzled by a character a few pages later. It will cost him a star or two from lazy reviewers, but it makes a better novel. Every word counts.

His ear for dialogue is snappy and the conversations are believable.

Highly recommended.     

Images from Charles Cumming’s website

Book page on Amazon.com

 

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Charlie Hebdo: The yawning gap between fact and fear, La Marseillaise, and moving national ceremonies in Paris

Count on The Economist to bring complicated issues into sharp focus with a single well-constructed graphic, such as the one it published on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. (See it here on the Graphic Detail blog. ($)) But first, run your own thought experiment by answering these questions:

  • What percentage of the population of your country is Muslim?
  • Has the number of terrorism arrests in Europe risen or fallen over the last seven years? How about religiously motivated terrorism?
  • In which European country do the most citizens think Islam is not compatible with the West? (Think carefully about this one.)

Compare your answers to The Economist’s chart below. Prepare to be surprised. (H/t Barry Ritholtz, whose economics blog I follow avidly.)

Chart by The Economist 1/7/15

This does not by any means make light of the risk – if you look at the chart of terrorism arrests in Europe you’ll see that overall arrests have declined by a third since 2007. The article doesn’t say exactly why, but it’s reasonable to assume the diminished activity of the Basque separatist movement in recent years plays a large role.

However, arrests for “religiously motivated terrorism” are at a new high, and if I read the chart correctly all of the increase has been in France. Based on the determination shown by François Hollande, the President of the Republic, and Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister, I’d say that number is likely to rise further this year.

Valls Before the Assembly

Prime Minister Manuel Valls spoke to the National Assembly today, and it was memorable — but not the most memorable happening.

At the end of the ritual minute of silence for the dead, the entire assembly sang La Marseillaise, apparently spontaneously. A lone Deputy began and the entire body followed.  La Marseillaise is one of the most stirring national anthems in the world, and to see and hear it done this was was astounding. (More impressive yet is that it was the first time this has happened since 1918, at the end of World War I.) If you’d like to watch it the same place I did, look at the 8pm newscast of France2. (It starts at 1:08 into the newscast. I recommend staying with it to see the memorial service for the three police officers who died victims of the same terrorists.) (For more about La Marseillaise, see its Wikipedia entry.)

The most concrete proposal Valls made was to segregate violent jihadists in the prisons, a project he promised would be well under way by the end of the year. The France2 correspondent in Washington indicated that the plan is to pattern it after the U.S. federal “super max” prison in Colorado.

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