Review: A Spy by Nature by Charles Cumming

by Rebeca on June 8, 2009

a-spy-by-natureA Spy by Nature
By Charles Cumming
St. Martin’s Griffin
355 pages
$13.95
In the slowly-paced A Spy by Nature, Charles Cumming introduces readers to Alec Milius, an intelligent, but cocky 24 year-old who is stuck at a dead-end telemarketing job. One evening at a dinner party at his mother’s house, Alec meets an old friend of his father’s, retired diplomat Michael Hawkes, who takes an interest in the young man and very generously arranges an interview for Alec with the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) or MI6.

Excited with the prospect of a challenging and interesting position, Alec goes through the interview process only to find out that he is not SIS material. However, all is not lost, Hawkes hands him a job at Abnex, a British oil company with the promise that if Alec follows instructions, he will be accepted into the British secret service after one year.

As part of the job description, Milius is to befriend Katherine Lanchester and Fortner Grice, a married, middle-aged American couple who are employed at Andromeda, a rival firm. In no time at all, Alec is playing both into the hands of the CIA and MI5, getting himself deeper in lies and secrets that ultimately lead to a personal tragedy.

The primary issue with A Spy by Natureis Cumming’s hero. Right from the very beginning, Alec comes across as an unsympathetic, weasely, and self-centered, who grapples with his insecurities, by covering them with his innate talent for deception. However, this instinctive aptitude for lying does not make a capable or talented spy. Alec proves to be an inept one, starting by the silly ego-boosting lies that he tells his would-be superiors and colleagues about a non-existent relationship with a former girlfriend. These fabrications come into play late in the novel and by that time the reader has lost patience with Alec and with the story itself.

The novel’s main action doesn’t take place until about half-way through the book; Cumming spends an extraordinary long time setting up the interview process with SIS, and then a too fast turnaround with a job at Abnex. There, Alec has to carry out responsibilities for both his cover as an analyst and as an industrial agent. The espionage mostly involves by ingratiating himself with the Americans. However, given the age differences between Alec, Katherine and Fortner, the relationship seems unbelievable. Alec appears to be a pendantic bore as he carries on of how unappreciated he is at his job, and tries to win the Americans’ sympathy. Of course, this is part of his cover, but by page 300, the story, Alec and his half-witted attempts at playing spy have become a tiresome read.

There’s a heavy dose of realism in A Spy by Nature, but as the story plods along, the reader will wish for some high-speed action a la Jason Bourne or even the noirish intrigue found in Alan Furst’s novels, Instead we have Alec Milius, novice spy with a loose tongue. God help her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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