The Hidden Man - Reviews

Daily Telegraph

"If you had to criticise The Hidden Man, you might say it was so slickly done, so mindful of its place in the spy genre and so precocious a feat ("Charles Cumming," the author biography announces, "was born in 1971") that it reads like an invoice to a publisher for a large cheque as much as an actual thriller. But that would be perverse, because it is so entertaining.

The plot might be summed up as "son of Smiley". The two sons of Christopher Keen, a patrician old MI6 hand, inherit a talent for intrigue and some of the dangerous mysteries their father created, relating especially to the West's cack-handed attempts at manipulating the mujahedin during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. This is the back story: a buried trail leading from Brezhnev almost to September 11. In the foreground are Moscow shenanigans of a more modern kind, concerning gangsterism and money-laundering by the Russian mafia in young London.

It's a compelling mix. The historical part supplies enough Kremlinology for traditionalists, who are also catered for by echoes of the genre's masters. Churning plot reversals and a wintry mood - taxis roll through slush-covered streets - evoke le Carre, while Len Deighton is there in the gnomic force of such sentences as: "A group of waiters, many with grey hair, had gathered near what appeared to be a lectern at the entrance of the restaurant."

On graduation from university, Charles Cumming was talent-spotted by the intelligence services, and spent six months in the MI6 selection process, an experience fictionalised in his well-received debut, A Spy By Nature. Like le Carre and Deighton, he has the confidence to depict intelligence work in a drolly bathetic way. Surveillance operatives are "pavements artists", acronyms like JPEG are sprinkled in, and plot mileage is gained from bureacratic confusions.

It's the contemporary London element that gives the book its zest, though. The onion domes of Moscow are on the cover, but this is all London - a city of Oxbridge nightclub entrepreneurs in Boden casuals, and hard-eyed female Evening Standard journalists who write about canapes and boy bands.

The human relations are well charted but this is a chilly, cerebral world. Instead of saying "no" to a question, the characters tend to say "not so" in an abstracted way. People "scope" rather than look at each other on meeting. Everybody is closed-off but neurotically hypersensitive, and Cumming is particularly good at those tiny punctuation points of life: during an awkward moment in a Kensington pub, for example, "a soft drinks gun coughs".

The pay-off is gloomily resonant, and confirms that Cumming is a man put on earth to perpetuate the spy thriller. He is also a more sensitive writer than most "literary novelists"."

Literary Review

"Cumming's depiction of contemporary intelligence work makes it sound even shabbier than le Carre's, but his account rings painfully true with its supporting cast, including hard-boiled Evening Standard hackette (one with "an arse so firm you could crack an egg on it") and espionage plotters all prowling greedily through locations, up-market and down. As an entertainment it's rather like watching sharks being fed. Disquieting, brutal, riveting. I hardly dared put the book down. Anything might happen while you're looking the other way."

Mail on Sunday

"Charles Cumming's second book confirms him as an emerging master of the modern spy thriller. Ben and Mark are brothers who share a particularly close fraternal bond because of the callous way in which their father, a former MI6 agent with an appropriately murky past, deserted them during their childhood. When their father reappears after an absence of decades Ben is adamant that he wants nothing to do with him. He relents, only for his father to be murdered on the very night of their meeting. Determined to find out the truth about his death, the brothers soon find themselves out of their depth in the sordid and brutal world of the Russian mafia. Cumming's greatest gifts are his finely tuned ear for dialogue and his ability to fashion real three-dimensional characters with whom the reader can identify."

Sunday Telegraph

"The debt to le Carré is obvious. An ex-M16 spook is murdered by an unidentified assassin, leaving his sons to disinter his former existence as a spy, in search of clues to his killer. It is a classically constructed yarn, in which institutional treachery and acts of personal betrayal are subtly intertwined. But if Cumming is not afraid to pay homage to his mentor, he is thoroughly his own man. The dialogue is bitingly sharp, the characterisation first-class and the mordant attitude towards the intelligence services unmistakable."


"A must read"