Review of “A Spy by Nature” by Charles Cumming

This was a really enjoyable read. As an aspiring thriller writer, Charles Cumming’s “A Spy by Nature” (2001) really hit a home run with me, and was one of the best books I have read recently. I have read several of his books previously, and I enjoyed them very much. His books are more cerebral than the typical American thriller. There is very little real “action” in the traditional sense, but there is a lot of effective mood-setting. No guns were directly involved in the writing of this book. I found that refreshing, and probably a lot more realistic than the typical ex-Navy Seal superhero inhabiting so many  American thrillers. This would be the kind of book I enjoyed reading and would like to write.

Charles Cumming is a British writer, in the tradition of John le Carré and Len Deighton. I don’t think he reaches the level of these authors, but that is not meant to be criticism. Le Carré and Deighton set a very high bar. Cumming is an excellent writer. This was his very first published novel. The first part of this book deals with the recruitment of a young spy and is based on the author’s actual experiences. I found this section of the book very interesting, since it was a very realistic portrayal of Cumming’s own experience receiving the “tap on the shoulder” and being recruited for the intelligence service.  It had only a peripheral relationship to the second half of the book, but did set a mood for what was to follow.  The second part of the book was about an industrial espionage situation and could have stood on its own. It was certainly not written from a formula.

Cumming’s protagonist, Alec Milius, is a young aspiring spy. He has many flaws, and to me, these weaknesses make him an attractive main character. The pressures of living a double life affect Milius, and Cumming is masterful at establishing an atmosphere of almost total paranoia. The main character makes bad choices under pressure, and Cumming arranges a web of pressures of all sorts for his protagonist. I particularly liked Cumming’s technique of using a conversation as a sort of gunfight without guns. Cumming uses a first person narrative to have the reader see his protagonist’s thoughts, and Milius provides the reader his own thoughts on what is possibly behind what the other character is saying. Perhaps Milius is correct, perhaps he is mistaken. As a reader, this technique really kept me interested and guessing throughout the book.

If any reader of this blog is looking for a cerebral spy story heavy on atmosphere and light on gunplay, I highly recommend Charles Cumming. I would suggest to a reader that they read this novel first, although his other novels that I read previously were able to stand alone quite well.

If the reader is interested, I am including a link to a podcast from the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. Apparently they provide podcasts of authors visiting on book promotion tours. I came across one including Charles Cumming promoting his most recent (2017) book “A Divided Spy.”

https://poisonedpen.com/2017/02/21/a-conversation-cumming-howe-coonts-the-poisoned-pen/

The podcast link is shown at the bottom of the linked page. It also includes interviews with KJ Howe and Stephen Coonts.

I obtained this book via interlibrary loan from my local library. I sought it out after reading and enjoying several of his other books.

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