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It’s a Mystery: “Truth doesn’t always come from truthful men”

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A Divided Spy
By Charles Cumming
St. Martin’s Press, 2017

Spook Street
By Mick Herron
Soho Crime, 2017

Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy is the third novel to feature London-based ex-MI6 agent Thomas Kell along with Amelia Levene, the first female head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. Both were introduced in A Foreign Country (2012). They returned in 2014’s A Colder War, which ended with the assassination in Istanbul of Kell’s girlfriend and fellow spy, Rachel Wallinger.

As A Divided Spy opens, it has been twelve months since Rachel’s death, during which time Kell has been a private citizen. Old habits die hard and even now when traveling on the Tube he often inspects his fellow passengers with a suspicious eye:

His occasional outbursts of paranoia were a kind of madness, a yearning for the old days; the corrupted sixth sense of a forty-six-year old spy who knew that the game was over….It was of no consolation to Kell…that the regions on which he had worked for the greater part of his adult life had further disintegrated into violence and criminality.

Of course, Kell may be out in the cold by design, but as Le Carré observed: “Those of us who have been inside the secret tent never really leave it.” So when an ex-comrade in arms, Harold Mowbray, turns up with a juicy revelation about Kell’s arch adversary, Russian spymaster Alexander Minasian, the game is definitely on. As Mowbray divulges over lunch, while on vacation in Egypt he spotted Minasian with a boyfriend. Minasian is a pedigree SVR (formerly the KGB) officer that Kell held personally responsible for Rachel’s death. Kell wanted his head on a platter. He is married to the daughter of St. Petersburg oligarch Andrei Eremenko, who is close to the Kremlin. Kell had scrutinized Eremenko’s business affairs for any overlap with his son-in-law to no avail:

“If he finds out his son-in-law is gay…”

Kell was silent as he continued to analyze what he had been told. It was unthinkable that the SVR would have a gay officer on its books, married or otherwise. SIS had only begun recruiting openly homosexual employees in the previous ten or fifteen years; modern Russia was antediluvian by comparison. If Minasian’s secret were exposed, his career would end overnight.

“Who else have you spoken to about this?”

Kell dreaded the simple reply, “C” because it would instantly shrink his options…if Amelia knew about it, she would sideline Kell on any subsequent operation, doubtless citing “personal issues” and “clouded judgement.”

N.B.: “C” is the initial given to denote the head of the British Secret Service. It was originated in 1909 by the first Chief, Mansfield Smith-Cumming. (No relation to the author.) He signed documents with a “C” in green ink, a custom upheld throughout the history of the service to the present.

Mowbray swears he has told no one and Kell chooses to believe him. It’s a decision he prays he won’t live to regret. After all, there is honor among thieves, perhaps, but honor among spies, never. Kell sets up a honey trap to ensnare Minasian using the lover Mowbray has identified for him. Minasian winds up in Kell’s apartment, the reluctant beneficiary of his hospitality.

They spar, oh how the two consummate pros go at it, engaging in verbal pyrotechnics that Cumming excels at. Their conversational tug of war on sanctions might have been ripped from this morning’s headlines. Putin would kvell and Trump, if he got it, wouldn’t approve. Things go into high gear when, almost casually, Minasian drops a bombshell about a brainwashed jihadi bent on causing mayhem in the United Kingdom: “ISIS is bringing its war to London. On this issue, for example, I would be very happy to cooperate with the Secret Intelligence Service.”

Some high level cloak-and-dagger turns up the proof Kell needs to get Amelia on board. With both MI6 and Minasian’s Kremlin capos in play the plot unfolds with serpentine and suspenseful perfection. Kell and Minasian find that they are soulmates in the sad dance of sex, lies and videotape. Two antagonists who have realized that “the profession they had chosen had left both of them broken and compromised and alone.”

A Divided Spy is a top-notch espionage tale with a smashing finale. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Mick Herron’s Spook Street is the fourth novel in his Slough House series (after 2016’s Real Tigers) which began with Slow Horses in 2010. Slough House is the “administrative oubliette” (dungeon of oblivion) of the Intelligence Service, where “slow horses” – washed out spies who have screwed up – hole up to lick the wounds of their failed careers.

The novel opens at London’s crowded Westacres shopping center—“a cavernous retail pleasure dome in London’s western fringe”—where a suicide bomb explodes killing dozens of innocent civilians, most of them teenage kids:

For the blast, when it came, left little intact. It shattered bone and pulverized mortality, and reduced all nearby life to charred stubble.… It lasted seconds, but never stopped, and those it left behind…would ever after mark the date as a day when something like the sun bloomed in all the wrong places, searing its indelible image into the lives of those it found there.

London’s intelligence teams are on full alert, which includes that motley crew in the dead-end stable. Under the often shaky aegis of their down and dirty spook-in-chief, Jackson Lamb, they soldier on in the shadow of Regent’s Park. The people Lamb calls “those pointy heads at the Park” are those held in favor with Her Majesty’s government who inhabit the Service’s headquarters.

Meanwhile, one of Slough’s own, River Cartwright, is more preoccupied with his grandfather than Westacres. Grandpa is David Cartwright, nicknamed O.B. by River (for Old Bastard, not Old Boy). He’s a world class legend among Britain’s spooks. And the O.B. “knows more secrets than the Queen’s had chicken dinners”. Now, he’s descending into dementia, wearing his pajamas to the grocery store and suspecting everyone in his life has been sent by the Service to watch him. Which may not be far off the mark, except that a worried River has him pegged as an assassination target:

David Cartwright was not a forgotten man round Regent’s Park: he had seen the Service through choppy waters…. It was he who’d picked the stars by which the Service read its maps. And now he was old, and old spies grew forgetful, and among the things they forgot was remembering what not to say.… So elderly spies had an eye kept on them…and maybe there were times—how could he not have thought about this?—when the Service reached out a gloved hand and eased an old Spook’s passage from this life.

He goes to visit his grandfather, steeling himself to not being recognized, which turns out to be the least of his problems. There’s a corpse in the house that eerily resembles River, and the body is being watched over by the delusional O.B. A Eurostar ticket on the body points to a French connection, so he parks grandpa with Catherine Standish, whom he trusts. Until recently she was Lamb’s assistant and ostensibly quit except that he keeps forgetting to process the paper work. River’s search leads to a commune in France, whose weird assortment of inhabitants is nefariously linked to both Cartwrights and the dead man.

Meanwhile, Jackson Lamb, who knows a thing or two about uncovering tracks, ferrets out the “nasty old spook with blood on is hands” (his affectionate appraisal). Now he wants Catherine to tell him where River went. After all, young Cartwright is his joe (OSS euphemism for a spy) who has a “tireless desire to play Double-Oh Seven”:

At last she said, “He hung his jacket over a chair. I went through his pockets while he was getting his grandfather settled…. He had a passport. British. Adam Lockhead. And a Eurostar ticket.”

…”So he’s over the channel. But France is a big place.”

…”There was a café receipt.”

“Of course there was,” said Lamb.

As always, Herron plays it close to the vest; he’s as secretive as his flock of flawed agents. He keeps us guessing about how it’s all going to turn out until the very end. Then he lets us in on a lot of secrets. The mall explosion is connected to an incident in David Cartwright’s past. The suicide of the first Service Head, a leitmotif in all four novels, is part and parcel of the O.B.’s former life. We are dazzled by a constant stream of revelations. And he does it all with a darkly deadpan humor that is as scathingly funny as it is irreverent. There’s no let up, no let down, it’s one hell of a tale told masterfully. As Jackson Lamb points out, ‘Spooks love their stories: it’s why they’re spooks.”

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.