I chose this book because of Litlove’s recommendation of Charles Cumming as an author of spy novels — a genre I enjoy when they’re any good, and by this time I would follow Litlove anywhere! Spy by Nature, written in 2004, tells the story of how Alec Milieus was recruited to MI6, or the British Secret Intelligence Service. It might not be the way you’d think.
It’s not so long ago that I finished Charles McCarry’s intricate, nonlinear series of spy novels about Paul Christopher. Christopher is what you might call the perfect spy (and McCarry’s are just about the perfect spy novels.) He comes from a family of spies, so he never has to discuss what he’s doing; his spycraft has been honed and perfected over years of use; he is often lonely, but he has both friendships and romantic relationships, and a rich inner life that includes writing published poetry.
Not so Alec Milius in Spy by Nature. As the novel begins, Alec is not a smooth, well-trained spy-in-training; he’s a drifter with a dead-end, slightly-dishonest job. (He rationalizes its dishonesty by its temporary nature.) He’s grieving a long-ago breakup with a girlfriend, and he can’t seem to move on, even though the end of the relationship was his fault. He has no prospects for anything else, until his mother tells him to call one of her dinner-party guests from the night before: Hawkes. (The very name immediately strikes a predatory note.) On Hawkes’s request, Alec sends along a resumé, more than half made up of lies and equivocations. Before he knows it, he’s taking the intelligence tests, group work tests, and examinations of field knowledge necessary to join the SIS — tests few people are qualified to take.
This is another place where a usual spy novel and Spy by Nature diverge. Alec doesn’t exactly wing his way through the tests, showing a cool natural aptitude for foreign service. He sweats blood, finds himself weak on knowledge, and constantly compares himself to others. (I did better, I did worse, there’s my competition, how can I torpedo him?) He returns home, feeling bitterly alone and sorry for himself.
I won’t divulge any more of the slow, intricate plot that builds into SIS and CIA mysteries. (Again, this is a thoughtful spy novel, not a fast-paced thriller.) But at each step, Cumming surprised me. What are Alec’s motives? Who is pulling the strings, and why? Is there a bigger plan beyond what he, and we, can see? What will be the effects of long-term loneliness and distance on someone like Alec, whose conscience is a bit friable to begin with? This is not a novel of a perfect spy, or of perfect spycraft. Instead, it’s a novel of a pure beginner, someone who doesn’t even understand his own reasons for what he’s doing, let alone his country’s. Watching him slowly put the pieces together –conscience, country, craft – didn’t make for a perfect novel, but it was interesting, and it made me want more. Since Cumming has six more novels in his backlist, I think I may get my wish.