Spying, even fictional spookery, is not all first class international travel, Inspector Gadget themed weapons and vodka martinis. Devotees of John Le Carré will know that, of course, but in case anyone needs further proof I present the excellent novels of Charles Cumming.
I picked up my first Cumming novel a year ago on the recommendation of a friend and as 2016 closes (good riddance) I'm just starting my seventh. I've loved all six so far - the three Thomas Kell books, the two featuring Alec Milius and now this standalone novel, The Trinity Six.
The five Cambridge spies - Burgess, Blunt, Philby, Maclean and Cairncross - who passed post-War secrets to the Soviets have been a mine of material for writers of fiction and non-fiction alike. One of the core themes in this has been the pursuit of other potential traitors cut from the same cloth. And this, as the title suggests, is the premise of Cumming's extravagantly entertaining 2011 novel.
The latest on the trail of the mythical sixth spy is Sam Gaddis, a down-on-his-luck professor at UCL's School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies. Gaddis, with school fees and the tax man to pay, needs to find a marketable book to sell. An idea arrives in the form of his journalist friend Charlotte Berg, who is on the trail of the sixth man and believes she might have found him in the form of one Edward Crane.
When Berg is found dead in her home, Gaddis soldiers on solo, quickly to discover that anyone wondering near the story of Crane has a habit of doing so. Nobody it seems wants the story to be told, including the secret services of both Russia and the UK.
The Trinity Six is fascinating on many levels. Cumming, who was reportedly approached to work for MI6, always delivers interesting insights into the workings of modern security services, portraying working life there as a mixture of mundane routine ('spying is waiting', Kell is fond of saying, quoting John Le Carré) and explosive excitement, with the former dominant. Cumming also explores the moral complexity of the trade, with Kell and the freelance Milius in particular spending a lot of time in the grey between what might be the patriotic and professional thing to do, and what might be the right thing to do. Gaddis, no more than an enthusiastic amateur, strays into some of this territory but is often too busy either recklessly trying to get himself killed, or trying to survive his own recklessness.
As the quest for the sixth spy turns to the more famous five for clues, there are also interesting history lessons around the post-War surge of support for communism within the academic elite that created such a ripe environment for Soviet headhunters.
Equally, at the heart of this novel, is a ruthless critique of modern Russia, fictionally run by one Sergei Platov, a thinly disguised (we're talking fag-paper-thin here) Vladimir Putin.
Finally, The Trinity Six is just a great thriller with everything you'd want from that. A great narrative runs at a grace pace with enjoyable characters and terrific writing. And I could say the same for all six of Cummings novels I've read.
If espionage is your thing, you'll love The Trinity Six. And if it's not, try it anyway.