Charles Cumming: Researching A Divided Spy

Charles Cumming: Researching A Divided Spy

Ideas come from all sorts of places and can appear at the strangest times. Stories can grow out of real-life experiences; they can ‘pop’ at random while you’re walking down the street or queuing at the supermarket with a basket of groceries.

My new novel, A Divided Spy, is the concluding instalment in a trilogy about a disgraced MI6 officer, Thomas Kell, who is offered a chance to bring down his nemesis, Russian spy Alexander Minasian. Minasian is a sociopath: charming, clever, ruthless and manipulative; a man without moral conscience whom Kell wrestles in a battle of hearts and minds.

Minasian is based on somebody I knew. The idea for his character grew out of my experiences of that person. Yet that same individual also inspired an entirely different character – a woman, in fact – in my previous novel, A Colder War. Such are the strange and contradictory journeys taken by the creative imagination.

A Divided Spy features a sub-plot about a young Muslim man from Leeds, Shahid Khan, who is plotting a terrorist atrocity in the UK. I was inspired to write about the jihadist mindset after appearing at a literary festival in 2014. A member of the audience asked me how a novelist could bring to life a suicide bomber. I replied that it wasn’t worth doing; how could a brainwashed psychopath, in thrall to a false god, ever connect with the average reader? Where were the nuances and contradictions and internal struggles that make, say, Soviet spies so fascinating?

After the festival I couldn’t shake the question from my mind. I realized that I had been too quick to dismiss the likes of ‘Jihadi John’ from fiction. Thousands of men and women were joining ISIS and pledging to destroy the West. Like Shahid Khan, these people were well-educated, middle-class European citizens. What was driving them to turn on people they grew up with; why were innocent people being slaughtered on the streets of Paris by French Muslims raised in the banlieues? I knew that it was the novelist’s responsibility to try and find a motivation for their crimes; not to forgive, but to understand.

In all my research into the jihadist mindset, the most striking characteristic was a lack of self-worth. These are young men (and women) caught between two poles: the highly sexualized, liberal culture of their peers and the ultra-conservative attitudes of their parents, breeding in them a strong desire to belong to a society from which they feel ostracized. It is this inner conflict that ISIS are so adept at exploiting. Shahid Khan is just such a character: an idealistic yet disenfranchised young man who goes to Syria to fight the Assad regime, only to fall under the spell of ISIS.

Terrorism also plays a significant part in the first book in the Kell series, A Foreign Country. At the beginning of the novel Kell has been turfed out of MI6 for taking part in the aggressive interrogation of a British national suspected of jihadism. That particular storyline came about because of my interest in ‘Witness B’, a real-life MI5 officer who was accused of complicity in the torture of Binyan Mohammed, a British resident detained by the Americans as a suspected enemy combatant. Following his interrogation by MI5 and CIA personnel in 2004, Binyan was ‘rendered’ to black prisons in Kabul and Morocco, before being transferred to Guantanamo.

I was interested in the moral quandary in which British intelligence officers often found themselves during the so-called War on Terror. In simple terms, the Brits took a very different attitude to the torture and mistreatment of prisoners than their colleagues in the CIA. Yet Britain and the United States were allies hunting the same enemy. How could MI5 and MI6 officers do their jobs effectively without risking a fracture in the intelligence relationship on which they rely so heavily?

A Foreign Country also concerns a devious French plot to convince a senior figure in MI6 that the child she gave up for adoption in the early 1970s has succeeded in tracking her down. The French manage to ‘switch’ the woman’s biological son for a DGSE spy masquerading as the adopted child. Believe it or not, such an operation was mounted by British intelligence in the early part of the 20th century. I discovered it in Christopher Andrew’s official history of MI5 and thought it would make a wonderful hook for a contemporary spy story.

Further inspiration came from John le Carré’s classic novel, Smiley’s People, in which George Smiley discovers that his nemesis, Karla, has an illegitimate daughter attending a finishing school in Switzerland. The adopted child in A Foreign Country is an homage to le Carré’s storyline. In fact all three Kell novels contain conscious references to le Carré’s oeuvre. The opening sequence of A Colder War, for example, is a re-working of the famous scene at the beginning of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in which Alec Leamas witnesses an agent being killed as he crosses from East to West Berlin. In my novel, MI6 officer Paul Wallinger sees a high-level Iranian military official being blown up as he defects from Iran into eastern Turkey. Kell’s search for a traitor inside western intelligence in the same novel is, of course, a nod to the molehunt in le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

What about research? I have often found, down the years, that while travelling in the locations in which I intend to set a particular sequence, ideas form simply as a consequence of spending time in that environment and exploring the local landscape. I knew, for example, that I wanted to end A Divided Spy in Warsaw; that Kell would have his final confrontation with Alexander Minasian in the Polish capital. But I did not know exactly what would happen, or where, or when, until I had spent several days walking the streets of Warsaw. It was only as I was crossing the Gdansk Bridge (pictured) on a baking hot summer day in July 2015 that the climactic scene began to coalesce in my mind.

I hope that this blog gives some sense of the myriad ways in which stories take shape and characters are formed in the writer’s imagination. And I hope readers will enjoy A Divided Spy.