Richard and Judy ask Charles Cumming

Richard and Judy ask Charles Cumming

MI6 approached you for recruitment in 1995. How did this come about and how did you feel about it?

I went to stay with my mother and my stepfather for the weekend. A man came for dinner, an old school friend of my stepfather’s – call him ‘Michael’. He said he had recently retired from the Foreign Office. We sat next to one another and had an interesting conversation. Then, in the middle of dinner, we learned that Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, had been assassinated in Tel Aviv. So we all gathered around the television, watching the news reports. I must have said something reasonably sane and thoughtful about the Middle East because, a few days later, my Mum bumped into Michael in her local supermarket. He suggested that I should apply for a job in the Diplomatic Service. I was invited to appear for an interview about a month after that, where I discovered that the job was more specialized than Michael had led me to believe – I was being tapped up as a possible recruit by MI6. Kim Philby said that it is difficult for any young person to turn down the opportunity to join an elite service, and I was simultaneously flattered and a bit surprised by what was happening to me. I didn’t think that I was particularly well suited to the job. And that proved to be the case. I didn’t make it past the Civil Service exams and my brief encounter with the secret world came to an abrupt end.

Your books demonstrate a depth of knowledge about the inner workings of MI6, and a real understanding of how spies operate. Where do you get your information from?

Some of it is common sense. MI6 officers are in the relationship business. They identify people who may be useful as informants or agents and set about recruiting them. Those relationships are about trust, shared goals, identifying what will make a person betray their country, take the considerable risk of working for a foreign intelligence service. In other words, very rarely are there any gadgets or invisible inks involved. It’s about persuasion, coercion, flattery, deceit. Most novelists are writing about those things in one way or another. They are not unique to spy fiction. I have also been lucky in the people who have spoken to me about their careers in MI5 and MI6. Nobody has ever shared a state secret with me, but I have certainly been made privy to aspects of tradecraft and institutional behaviour that would otherwise have eluded me. There is also an enormous amount of publicly available information about spies and spying, most obviously on the Internet. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago. A lot of the secrecy and mystique that surrounded espionage in the last century has slowly evaporated.

You’ve been compared favourably with Deighton, Forsyth and le Carré. Whose work do you prefer?

Le Carré has had the single biggest influence on me as a writer, purely because of the example he set in his own fiction. Like Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad before him, le Carré showed that novels of suspense and political intrigue could also be novels of character and of psycho- logical complexity. In other words, that the spy novel could have a literary dimension. Like le Carré, Len Deighton is also a great prose stylist. Part of the pleasure of The Ipcress File, for example, lies in the quality of the writing. In fact I tried to capture some of the dry, ironic tone of the Harry Palmer novels in the opening of A Foreign Country, where Tom Kell wakes up in a strange suburban house with a terrible hangover and no idea where he is. Forsyth is a slightly different kind of writer – more macho, if you like. He doesn’t really go in for relationships and feelings. The great appeal of a Forsyth thriller lies in his expert plotting and impeccable research.

British intelligence is currently super-focused on Syria, Iraq, and ISIS. Material for your next book?

Yes and no. Both Kell books are concerned with the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, but it’s extraordinarily difficult – and risky – to write about events that are currently in the headlines. The danger isn’t only that your audience will have become jaded about a particular political situation, but also that events on the ground will change so rapidly that any novel is soon out-of-date. To give an example. I was living in Madrid when I was writing The Spanish Game, a novel about the now defunct Basque separatist group, ETA. I was there on the morning of the Atocha bombings, which were initially blamed on ETA. If that had been shown to be the case, I would have had to abandon the novel and start again. Having said that, there’s no question that radical Islam is a threat that is here to stay, so it will be up to writers like myself to try to tackle that subject. But spy novelists are also in the entertainment business. We offer escapism to our readers. We take them into another world. It’s questionable whether or not that world should give too much space to ignorant, murdering psychopaths who stone women to death and cut off the heads of aid workers in Syria – my books would very quickly become extraordinarily bleak and depressing if that was the case. Perhaps that’s why the follow-up to A Colder War won’t take place in Syria or Iraq, or be much concerned with ISIS. It’s going to be a story about Kell trying to work out whether he wants to stay in the spying game; if he thinks it’s all worth it. He is handed an extraordinary opportunity, one which could offer him the possibility both of redemption and revenge. But will he take it? Should he take it? I’m going to call the novel A Divided Spy.