A Colder War tells a familiar espionage adventure – there’s a mole; could be British or American; an outsider is tasked with resolving the situation – and places it in the current world of uncertain allegiances in international politics. It’s all about tradecraft and trust: about the possibility of redemption set against the emotional isolation of the individual agent.
Thomas Kell is working his way back into favour at MI6 after being scape-goated earlier in this series, but you don’t need to have read the previous books. It’s fine to take the plunge with this one as it works fine as a stand-alone story, although understanding Kell’s relationship with the female head of SIS is useful. You certainly need to know that he’s very much a lost sheep, ostracised from the flock, and fairly desperate to return to the world of MI6 and international spookery.
Several ops have gone haywire. Assets have been lost. Intelligence is seeping through an unidentified crack. And now an old friend and senior officer has died in extremely suspicious circumstances. This is Kell’s opportunity to redeem himself with his colleagues and get back on the books. It also turns out to be a surprise opportunity to re-establish the kind of human contact he’s been starved of for years. Emotionally he’s being tugged in one direction while operationally he makes a break-through which could resolve all of his problems… but only if he can wrap up the op without losing his prey, either in London, in the sidestreets and cafes of Istanbul, or on the Potemkin Steps at Odessa.
Many of the themes of A Colder War – and not just the dead-letter drops, full-on surveillance, honey traps and such – hark back to the heyday of British spy novels. Kell’s isolation, his tentative approach to human contact echo all the way back to the Spy Who Came In From The Cold. But while Le Carre’s hero was soaked in despair and every page reeked of desperation, A Colder War is a drier affair. It’s stuffed full of detail – from accurate descriptions of the underpass at Odessa to ruined houses on islands in the Bosphorus – but the characters felt fictional to me. Intriguing and challenging, yes; and this is an entirely entertaining and well-written episode – but they don’t exactly leap from the page. I felt like I was observing an intellectual exercise, rather than being swept along by the emotional peril of the protagonist. A Colder War is polished and professional; maybe too much for its own good…
That aside, it’s a stimulating puzzle where pieces fall into place (or not) and, like Kell, we’re never entirely sure that we’ve been told the whole story. The core of the story revolves around a simple human dilemma: is it possible to lie, cheat, betray and obfuscate for a living – for an entire way of life – and retain any semblance of honesty? Is there such a thing as an honest spy? And if there is, then can that man ever find peace with a loving partner?
The answers, in A Colder War at least, aren’t easy.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
A Colder War by Charles Cumming, and the earlier books in the Kell series, are available at Amazon