Monday, 8 February 2021

What I'm reading: Not licensed to kill



I’m playing catch-up with Charles Cumming, having admired The Trinity Six, his contribution to the Cambridge Spy saga (Philby & Co.). A Spy by Nature was his first book. Alec Milius flunks the training for MI6 but MI5 offer him a probationary assignment: he is to join a “sting” operation with an oil exploration company in the City of London, whose contracts in Kazakhstan a US rival is trying to poach. Alec must befriend an American husband-and-wife team and feed them false intelli-gence.

In this early novel (2001) I detect the influence of Robert Ludlum. Cummings writes everyday prose and uses extended dialogue scenes to shade his characters and build up the tension. I wish he didn’t write in the present tense, but this is an impressive debut. Industrial espionage (by our closest ally) doesn’t sound as murky as penetrating terrorist cells, but in fact it is. The ending is as bleak as a Le Carrè.

The author’s biographic introduction tells us that as a post-grad he was approached by MI6. I hope it really is true that their recruitment briefing includes the statement: “Officers are certainly not licensed to kill.”

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