A Spy By Nature (Alec Milius 1) - Reviews

Robert Harris

"A wonderfully assured first novel. It has the ring of absolute authenticity. Tautly written, cleverly plotted...it reminded me strongly of the early books of John le Carré"

Sunday Telegraph

"WHEN HE left university in 1994, the journalist Charles Cumming was invited to apply to join MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service. For six months he underwent the rigorous selection procedures before deciding the secret life was not for him, withdrawing from the "great game" before it had even started. At the back of his mind, I suspect he also knew he had the makings of a book here, and it was one unlikely to be welcomed by his potential employers. 

In fact this gripping debut novel, which shows there is still life in spy fiction despite the ending of the Cold War, is at its least involving when it describes what appears to be Cumming's personal experience. The first 100 pages, in which the hero, Alec Milius, an ambitious graduate in a dead-end job, describes his approach by MI6 and the interviews and exams he undergoes, is excessively detailed and, frankly, dull. 

The book only kicks into life when Cumming starts to use his imagination. Milius is turned down by MI6 and instead enters the murky world of industrial espionage. He gets employment with an oil company, with more shadowy masters in the background, and appears to be selling his firm's secrets (about an oilfield in the Caspian) to a rival American company with CIA connections. 

Cumming memorably captures the loneliness and constant anxiety of a man who has chosen to lie for a living, and though Milius, who tells his own story in the first person, is in many ways an unappealing character (arrogant, self-obsessed and devoid of a sense of humour), one finds oneself totally caught up in his story and genuinely concerned for his welfare. The tension builds strongly as the operation becomes increasingly hairy, and there is a bracing undercurrent of moral indignation about both the futility, and the ruthlessness, of modern espionage. 

The book is well researched and deftly plotted, and though there is a clear debt to Deighton and le Carre, Cumming never seems like a mere imitator. His prose is efficient, rather than stylish, too many of the supporting characters fail to come to life, and there are moments when his "spy by nature" behaves so foolishly that one feels like screaming. Nevertheless, in its exciting closing stages, it is a book one would be seriously annoyed to have to put down, and the ending leaves the way tantalisingly open for what could prove an even stronger sequel."

Wall Street Journal

“Cumming has the sensibility of John le Carre.”

Mail on Sunday

"Charles Cumming has taken something of a risk with this fine debut to what will doubtless be an impressive literary career. He has broken the spirit, if not the letter, of the Official Secrets Act with his scrupulously accurate account of what it is like to be recruited by MI6. 

From my own reminiscences of the procedure seven years before Cumming was himself accepted into the service (he trained for a short time before deciding to become a writer), I can attest that it is absolutely accurate in every detail, down to the appearance of the buildings, wording of the correspondence and nature of the cognitive tests. Anyone wishing to join the Secret Intelligence Service should certainly buy this book before undergoing the recruitment process.

The main protagonist one hesitates to call him a hero, but neither is he quite an antihero is Alec Milius, a pathological liar who fibs even when it is not to his advantage and will tell 'a slight lie in a pub just to fill in the silence'. He cheats at chess, holds nothing sacred and is grindingly ambitious. Imperfect material for MI6, then, but ideal for use undercover at long, deniable length from the service.

Tautly written and generally believable, the book quickly develops into a complex tale of code words, betrayal of friendship, bluff and counter-bluff, CIA operations, double-crossing, GCHQ surveillance and industrial espionage.

Like the good intelligence officer he might have become if he had not chosen authorship instead, no detail is too obscure for Cumming, down to the 'soft plastic suck' of a fridge door opening.

Without wishing to give anything away, there is also a fascinatingly up-to-date take on the effect of the EU on the relationship between the CIA and MI6.

An author's note at the beginning warns that 'members of the intelligence community both in London and the US may find they catch their reflection in the account which follows'. 

For once, that is definitely not the teaser that spy writers habitually employ: Cumming writes it like it is."

Publisher’s Weekly - Starred Review

“Cumming's supremely intelligent and utterly readable debut will delight fans of such British masters of spy fiction as John le Carré, Robert Ludlum and Len Deighton…Smartly paced and intricately plotted, Cumming's decidedly unglamorous look at industrial espionage provides plenty of elaborate deceits, double crosses and other trappings of a first-class spy thriller.”

Boris Starling

"Who among us has never dreamed of being a spy? Charles Cumming takes this conceit and runs with it, pitching his everyman hero Alec Milius into ever-widening circles of betrayal and deceit. But Milius is no ersatz James Bond and there are no amphibious cars or exploding pens in sight, and the book is all the better for it. Cumming writes beautifully, equally at home with the broad brushstrokes of international geopolitics as he is with the finer dabs of nuance and subtlety.

His plotting is assured, but where he really excels is with his characterisation. Milius is an engaging but complex protagonist, full of the modern male's hopes and fears and insecurities, and his battle to retain his sense of identity as events unfold beyond his control is brilliantly portrayed. Just as importantly, Cumming proves equally deft with his secondary characters. Milius' best friend Saul, the American couple he befriends, and his suspicious colleague Harry all leap off the page at the reader without ever descending into stereotype or cliché. Even the most fleeting of characters are given distinctive voices and identities - something that only Thomas Harris among modern thriller writers does better, and he has had four novels and 25 years' practice!

It would be accurate but patronising to call this an excellent debut novel. It is an excellent novel full stop."


"Alec Milius, the protagonist of Charles Cumming's A Spy by Nature, has bagfuls of self-pity, but unfortunately he doesn't seem to have many other features or qualities, besides a rather shallow and self-regarding intelligence. This is a deliberate, but misguided, choice by Cumming, whose plot turns on the fact that Milius is a chippy loser who falls to pieces when placed by MI6 at the heart of an industrial espionage scam. It seemed implausible to me that MI6, or anyone else for that matter, would employ someone who was quite so obviously a broken reed, although I suppose that Cumming might invoke David Shayler to refute this point. The real weakness of this book, though, is that Milius has too little charm for the reader to want to spend much time with him. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it can also be less interesting."

Literary Review

"An eerily good first novel (where did this brand new author develop such style, authority and muscle?) about ambitious young wannabe Alec Milius who opts for a job with MI6, whose strategists place him at the heart of an oil-drilling operation in Kazakhstan which is being finessed this way and that by rival teams of US and British intelligence. Whoever plays dirtiest wins the jackpot. Plotting both plausible and persuasive, with horrors which mount stealthily behind a veneer of seemingly straightforward cloak-and-dagger games. Witty, well-observed ('Christine Hamilton, straining her indignation like a pug on a leash') and glinting with quotable axioms ('All the traitor ever craves is respect'). Most signally, though, a book that's written with a real loathing of espionage: self-justifying, ruthless and corrupting. A strong and serious entertainment; don't miss."

New York Daily News

“A must-have handbook for spy wannabes”

Ain’t It Cool News

“It’s been a while since a book from the spy genre has grabbed me so quickly and managed to get my attention night after night…I’m actually shocked to have only just discovered this great writer, but I’m happy to report he’s written several other books. He’s a hit in England; let’s hope people catch on to him here.”

The Mirror

"Cumming's first novel is an intense study of the world of espionage. The Cold War may be over but for underachieving, 24-year-old Alec, the intelligence service is a viable career option. Rather than finding glamour and glory in his new guise, Alec discovers that the fake relationships he forges aren't what trouble him, it's the genuine ones he's left behind that are twisting his mind. Cumming ventures calmly and collectedly into the spy's psyche, but as the plot peters out you find yourself aching for the excitement of some James Bond-style fantasy to spice it all up." 

Entertainment Weekly

“A pulsating thriller… The author transforms the mundane — transmitting a fax, playing tennis, attending a dinner party — into tension-packed scenarios. Nature gives spy fans an intriguing glimpse of a newbie Bond — minus the license to kill.”


“Cumming speaks with authority… and amasses a convincing array of details to support his view of industrial espionage as a soul-destroying exercise in postmodern absurdity.”