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A Spy by Nature by Charles Cumming
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A Spy by Nature

by Charles Cumming

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I thought maybe I wasn't in the mood for a spy novel because I didn't care very much for this book. I certainly wouldn't agree with the review from The Observer that was quoted on the back cover "The best of the new generation...taking over where Le Carre and Deighton left off." I've read lots of Le Carre and I was never bored as I was with this book. Or maybe, I thought, now that there is no Cold War the stakes for espionage don't lend themselves to as gripping a story. But then I thought of Le Carre's books written since the fall of the Berlin Wall, like The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardener, and I decided that couldn't be the reason. Finally I looked at some of the other online reviews and decided that this book just was not well written.

Alec Milius is a twenty something graduate of the London School of Economics employed selling advertising to eastern European businesses in a directory which is mostly bogus. Then a family friend arranges for him to be tested for MI6 but Alec cannot resist lying about his relationship with his ex-girlfriend and he gets caught out. So he is not accepted for the British spy agency but his father's friend comes through with a job working for an oil company. The job has a hidden agenda which is to befriend an American couple who work for a rival oil firm. Alec is supposed to pretend to agree to provide them with information from his company and then he will give them false information. Even though Alec has not seen his ex-girlfriend in over a year he lies to the Americans and tells them he sees her occasionally. This comes to have tragic consequences.

Some of the devices used in the book don't really make sense to me. For instance, why did Alec have to have his friend Saul at the party where he was introduced to the Americans? And why did he have to go in on a Saturday to copy the papers he was leaving in his first drop? And why did the last drop have to be at a lawyer's office at midnight? I know they had to get the office mate, Harry Cohen, to be suspicious of Alec but is it likely Harry would go off for 3 weeks after confronting Alec? It just didn't add up and the story was not "heart-racingly tense" as promised on the back cover. ( )
  gypsysmom | Aug 9, 2017 |
Charles Cummings' first novel is an easy-to-read spy thriller set in the dog days of the Major government in the mid-90s. Alec Milius is a twenty-something ex-public schoolboy in a dead end job when he's offered the chance to apply to work for MI6 (or the Secret Intelligence Service as it is properly known). Loosely based on Cummings own experiences we are taken through the exam and interview process as Milius vies with half a dozen other candidates for the chance to become a spy. But the flaw in Milius' character is that he doesn't know when to stop lying, or at least embroidering the truth. A quality a spy needs, you might say, but with Milius it scuppers his chances and he finds himself out of work and at a loose end.
It is then that fate, in the shape of ex-spy and family friend Michael Hawkes, hand Milius a chance to indulge in a little industrial espionage with the dangling carrot of a job at MI5 at the end. So Alec starts work at a small oil company called Abnex, with orders to befriend two Americans who work for a rival company. They are also CIA agents. Welcome to the murky world of spy vs spy.
Cummings' prose is fluid and well written. The problem for me is that his protagonist isn't the most likeable of people. Milius is self-obsessed and incapable of sticking to the job at hand. The second two thirds of the book, where he's feeding false info to the Americans is rather aimless and meanders a bit too much. By the end he's put almost everyone he cares about in danger and this reader's reaction was "Well you shouldn't have been such a twat, should you?"
This modern spy thriller isn't in the same league as the best of LeCarre or Deighton, lacking the former's world weary density and the latter' down-to-earth depiction of the mundanity of espionage.
So, an easy read and it's probably worth exploring Cummings' later works. But the heir to Deighton, on this evidence, he's not. ( )
  David.Manns | Nov 28, 2016 |
Spy by Nature was just OK.... writing was fine, section related to the vetting process for MI6 was interesting, but the rest was pretty predictable. The thing that bothered me the most about this book was the disparity between the supposed high intelligence level of the main character and the bone-headed mistakes and mis-steps he makes throughout the story.

I've read later Cumming novels and they're much better from a story standpoint. ( )
  gmmartz | Jun 21, 2016 |
I almost never re-read a book, but as I have acquired the rest of the series, I thought I needed to go back to the start. I enjoyed this 9 years ago and I enjoyed it again. I will need to rad "The Spanish Game" soon, because I cannot imagine how our hero (?) Alec Milius can begin to rehabilitate himself after this one. Like any good spy book, there are echoes of Le Carre, but that is no bad thing. Taut plotting and crisp dialogue make this an excellent read. ( )
  johnwbeha | Nov 18, 2015 |
Very detailed, slow moving book. Only towards the end did it catch me by surprise and reeled me in. The writing style certainly is a matter of taste. ( )
  kenzen | Feb 23, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312366353, Hardcover)

This is what they told me a long time ago.
Only make contact in the event of an emergency.
Only telephone if you believe that your position has been fatally compromised.
Under no circumstances are you to approach us unless it is absolutely necessary in order to preserve the security of the operation.
This is the number.

Alec Milius is young, smart, and ambitious.  He also has a talent for deception.  He is working in a dead-end job when a chance encounter leads him to MI6, the elite British Secret Intelligence Service, handing him an opportunity to play center-stage in a dangerous game of espionage.

In his new line of work, Alec finds that the difference between the truth and a lie can mean the difference between life and death--and he is having trouble telling them apart.  Isolated and exposed, he must play a role in which the slightest glance or casual remark can seem heavy with unintended menace.  Caught between British and American Intelligence, Alec finds himself threatened and alone, unable to confide in even his closest friend.  His life as a spy begins to exact a terrible price, both on himself and on those around him.

Richly atmospheric and chillingly plausible, A Spy By Nature announces the arrival of British author Charles Cumming as heir apparent to masters like John le Carré and Len Deighton.  A bestseller in England, it's the gripping story of a young man driven by ruthless ambition who finds himself chasing not just success, but survival.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:04 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Young, smart, and ambitious, Alec Milius is delighted when a chance encounter brings him to the attention of MI6 and into a dream career with a British oil company, a job that leads him into the dark world of industrial espionage, trapped in a life of deception as he becomes caught between MI6 and the CIA and discovers that information can come at the cost of a human life.… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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