Charles Cumming’s take on espionage fiction finds the Scottish novelist placing his hero, Lachlan Kite, in the third in the Box 88 series and in some of history’s most notorious troublespots

It’s perhaps strange to say that Charles Cumming is one of our new breed of espionage novelists, with his first novel, A Spy By Nature, published in 2001. The literary guides of the secretive spying world that so fascinates us, do seem to have a long shelf life, quite literally. The recognised master, John le Carré, wrote for more than 40 years. Charles Cumming knows that comparisons with those who have gone before are inevitable. But Le Carré was his personal gateway into the shady word of tradecraft and agents.

However, Cumming is finding new ways to tell exciting spy stories in the digital world, where metadata can keep track of our movements in a way that human surveillance never could. Born in Ayr, Cumming was introduced to Le Carré when still a student at the University of Edinburgh, and read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. “I had picked up Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me at about the age of 10, which wasn’t a great idea because it’s probably his worst Bond novel,” he says. “It wasn’t until reading The Spy Who Came In From The Cold that I realised what espionage fiction could be.”

Following graduation, he was approached by MI6 and although his wasn’t a long involvement it certainly gave him interesting material for A Spy By Nature. His latest novel is Kennedy 35. It’s the third in the Box 88 series where the protagonist, Lachlan Kite now finds himself being sent to West Africa. For Cumming, the idea of the Kite novels was about following this one man from his childhood to his youth, when he was recruited, through to his sixth decade. Heading into West Africa and areas that perhaps haven’t been covered before in spy fiction interests him. 

“There were events and a period, the whole of the 1990s really, that the spy novel forgot in many ways. The Rwandan genocide is one and is the subject of Kennedy 35. Also the fall of Yugoslavia, which is the topic of the new book I’m doing.” Of course there are different approaches to the spy novel. Cumming talks about the tropes that espionage fans love and thrive on – and those can be delivered in different ways.

“You can have the Robert Ludlum (author of the Jason Bourne series) sugar rush, adrenaline-fuelled thrillers. Not necessarily realistic but sell by the bucketload and are turned into movies. 
“And then there’s someone like Eric Ambler, with his super-realistic political thrillers about ordinary men. Men who wear suits and fedoras to go to work, and then suddenly they’re cast into the world of secrets and lies and deception and danger.” Although Cumming’ novels are a thrilling read, he leans more towards a modern-day Ambler, with the psychological element of the espionage game and Realpolitik factoring more than gadgets and the right gun.

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There are adaptation projects in the offing with A Spy By Nature adapted for film by John Hodge (Trainspotting), with Paul Mescal attached to the lead role, but there is also the great prospect of the Box 88 novels making it to the screen, adapted by the brilliant Jez Butterworth. Cumming says he rarely reads spy fiction now – keeping his head clear for his own stories – but he does wade through as much non-fiction research as he can find on a subject. “At the moment I’m deep into the Balkan wars and the siege of Sarajevo. I do get lost in research, but these are fascinating parts of the world and I want to immerse myself. But someone like Mick (Herron) will just write. We all have different ways to get into the story we want to tell.”

Cumming will be at Granite Noir in Aberdeen this month, part of an event called Hidden Darkness, which also features Denise Mina and Louise Welsh. He says: “There is such a huge fan base for all types of crime fiction, and in Scotland I think readers are served really well, not just by the authors but the events too.” Cumming also enjoys getting out in front of the readers. Naturally, with so many events, the main interview can cover similar ground, but he says you can always depends on the audience Q&As to enliven a discussion.

“They often find questions that come out of left field, shall we say! It’s also great to meet people who read your work and keep coming back for the next book. It makes those days behind the research books and the desk and the computer worthwhile.”