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A Spy by Nature - Charles Cumming

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Author: Charles Cumming / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 29 March 2012 / Genre: Crime & Thriller / Subcategory: Espionage & Spy Thriller / Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers / Title: A Spy by Nature / ISBN 13: 9780007416912 / ISBN 10: 0007416912 / Alternative title: Alec Milius 1: A Spy By Nature - Charles Cumming / Alternative ISBN 10: 0007416911

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      27.06.2012 16:38
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      An excellent, more realistic take on the spy genre

      A Spy by Nature is the first book featuring Charles Cumming's spy, Alec Milius (the second is 2008's The Spanish Game and has been previously reviewed by me). This one covers his recruitment on a trial basis to the Secret Service and his first "mission" - to operate undercover at an oil company, whilst passing industrial secrets to a rival firm.

      For various reasons, I ended up reading the second book first and coming back to this one a little later. As odd as it might sound, I'm actually rather glad I did it that way, as I think it helped me to get the most out of both books. Neither book is dependent on having read the other and whilst The Spanish Game had a few vague references to the events of this book, they were neither so frequent, nor so crucial that I felt like I was missing out.

      More importantly, The Spanish Game is a little faster paced. Cummings assumes (incorrectly in my case!) that readers will already be familiar with the character, so he swings straight into the action, plunging you instantly into the murky world of espionage. The fast pace of the book really had me gripped from the start and I really enjoyed reading it.

      A Spy by Nature, on the other hand, is quite slow paced. This benefits the book because it allows Cummings to paint a very realistic picture of the world of espionage and counter-espionage. However, had I read this one first, I don't think I would have been confident that this could have been carried on for another book, so probably would not have bothered with the sequel. As it was, by reading the second book first, I became hooked and so the extra detail provided in this one was very welcome, as it fleshed out the back-story for the characters.

      This is a world away from the glamour of the Bourne or Bond films. Rather than frequently being threatened by gun-toting enemies or elaborate death-traps, the biggest danger to Milius comes from his own tendency to over-complicate things, to worry too much about consequences, or his own paranoia.

      This creates a very vivid world in which Milius' innate paranoia comes to the fore and he sees danger in everyone he passes in the street. Since we are aware of the murky world in which he is operating, the reader buys into this paranoia and starts to feel anxious for the character. As the book progresses (and Milius starts to cross and double cross more and more people), this paranoia creates a palpable sense of tension that pervades the whole book and creates a superbly tense atmosphere. This more than makes up for the lack of raging gun battles or rooftop chases and paints a far more realistic picture of spying than we are perhaps used to.

      A Spy by Nature is also very tightly plotted. Cummings creates an excellent plot which instantly grabs the attention and makes for fascinating reading. Although (as noted above), there is very little "action" in the usual sense of the word, the book is no less fascinating for that. It's quite tricky to get across how good the plot is, because if you try to explain it to someone, it actually sounds rather boring. Around the first 100 pages, for example, are taken up with the minutiae of Alec trying to apply for MI6 and the events which follow. The middle section focuses on his work for Abnex, a small oil company, and his gradual befriending of an American couple.

      This doesn't sound like the basis of a good plot, but it's surprising how caught up in it you soon find yourself. It's precisely because of this slow pace that you are gripped. Since he is not rushing his characters from set piece to set piece, Cumming can take the time to build them up, to treat them like real people. As such, we start to understand why they act in particular ways in certain circumstances; something which again adds to the realism. This book is as much about human nature as it is about spying.

      Cumming also doesn't fall into the trap of making all his characters into "nice" spies, essentially good people doing a nasty job. The lead character Alec Milius, in particular, is a deeply flawed individual. He is selfish, thoughtless, self-centred and at times downright nasty. Yet he is also highly contradictory and can be strong and loyal to his friends. In other words, he is very human and has both very positive characteristics and some deeply negative ones. It's these character flaws that make him so interesting. Just as he seeks to exploit the weaknesses of others, so they look to turn his weaknesses against him. It's this which provides the tense cat-and-mouse action of the plot, wondering who will outwit who and eventually manage to come out on top.

      The same is true of most of the other major characters. They are very well constructed and the interplay between them deeply convincing. The more you read, the more you feel like these are real people conducting real industrial espionage (and, indeed, there is more than a suggestion from Cumming that they are based on real people). This helps to make everything feel very convincing. As a result, the more the action progresses and the tenser the atmosphere gets, the more you fear for the mental (and occasionally physical) well-being of them all.

      The plot is not a particularly difficult one to keep track of. Partly because it's fairly obvious where it is heading from a relatively early stage, but also because we are privy to Milius' thoughts and actions (the book is told in first person perspective) so we know what he is thinking and planning. Once again, though, this relative simplicity works in the book's favour, because it means you can savour the well-written and well-rounded characters without having to try and keep track of hundreds of different sub-plots.

      You do need to bear in mind that A Spy By Nature is not your typical spy novel. There are no set-pieces in the entire book, no gun battles, no car chases or any of the usual stuff Hollywood has conditioned us to expect. The pacing is sedate with the focus on characters, rather than action. If you like your spy books full of derring-do and last-minute escapes then you are probably going to find yourself disappointed. If, on the other hand, you value well-rounded characters, convincing situations and a tense atmosphere, then you will greatly enjoy A Spy by Nature.

      A Spy By Nature can be picked up in paperback (second hand) for a couple of pounds, whilst the Kindle edition will set you back about £4.50. I'd recommend picking it up as cheaply as you can because although it's very enjoyable, it's probably one that you will read and give away rather than want to keep.

      Basic Information
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      A Spy by Nature
      Charles Cumming
      Penguin, New Ed. 2002
      ISBN: 978-0140294767

      (c) copyright SWSt 2012

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