Written by Charles Cumming

Review written by Adrian Magson

Adrian Magson is the author of 27 crime and spy thrillers. 'Death at the Old Asylum', the 8th title in the Inspector Lucas Rocco series set in 1960s France, currently in ebook, comes out in paperback on the 14th March via Canelo Books. More information:

Harper Collins
RRP: £12.99
Released: 3rd Febraury 2011

A reminder from the pen of Charles Cumming that the world of spies is not so much one of fast-paced action, guns ‘n hi-tech bludgeonry, but more the quiet and systematic approach to deception and long-term undercover work.

In 1992, Edward Crane – an elderly ‘diplomat’ – is declared dead in a London hospital, watched over by medical personnel. Zipping forward fifteen years, journalist and historian Sam Gaddis is approached by a woman, Holly Levette, with an offer of her late mother’s research files into the history of the KGB. Spurred on by his attraction to Holly, but with a greater need to earn some money to support his daughter, now living with her mother overseas, Gaddis agrees. He later meets a friend and fellow historian, Charlotte Berg, who tells him she is sitting on a huge story involving a KGB spy, codenamed ATILLA, who was right at the heart of the British establishment, a fact which has been covered up for fifty years. The source of this story claims to know the man (named Crane), who wrote down a lot of what he knew, and that some of the revelations will rock the Russian and British establishments to their roots. Charlotte asks Gaddis to help her with the story.

Gaddis is less than excited, but is well aware of the continuing rumours that there was actually a sixth member of the ‘Cambridge Five’ spy ring, along with Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross, and that finding the identity of such a person would be an enormous coup and would solve his financial problems.

However, before he can begin digging, Charlotte dies of a heart attack. He is urged by her husband to carry on where Charlotte left off, although Gaddis is unsure just how reliable any of this information will be after all this time, or whether there is a story in it after all.

So begins the gradual peeling away of layers around a long-dead rumour. Sensing that he has to get to the heart of the story, Gaddis pursues any leads he can get to the man known as Crane. He seems to have died in hospital, yet Gaddis soon finds that he was seen alive and well by a nurse who attended his ‘final’ moments. As he follows the trail across Europe, seeking further corroboration, he discovers that far from merely involving an old spy with a story to tell, he is nudging up against something much bigger which could be fatally relevant to Sergei Platov, the current Russian premier. Is Gaddis dealing with reality, or the distorted imaginings of old men desperate to hang on to their view of history? Or worse, is he being used to expose a plot which could be destructive for all those involved?

Gaddis is no James Bond; he is an academic beset by the need to become close again with his daughter, by his desire to uncover a story, partly for his late friend, Charlotte, but mostly for himself and his own reputation. Not the most sympathetic of characters, he blunders across the landscape, unaware that he is being watched by people with a close interest in finding out just what he knows – and stopping him if he gets too close to the truth. This results in the deaths of the nurse and others who witnessed Crane’s fake demise, but Gaddis seems almost detached from the signals this sends.

For those who like the slow-burn twists and turns of le Carré, this book will certainly appeal. In fact, author Robert Harris has named Cumming as the heir-apparent to le Carré’s throne in spy fiction. I would not argue with that.

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