Monday, August 20, 2007

"A Spy By Nature"

Charles Cumming is the author of A Spy By Nature, The Hidden Man, and The Spanish Game.

He applied the Page 69 Test to A Spy By Nature and reported the following:
About a month ago I received an email from a creative writing student who told me that A Spy By Nature had been used on her course as an example of how to structure a thriller. Needless to say, I was pretty pleased about this, not least because I’ve always thought that the structure of the book was somewhat unusual.

A quick glance at page 69 partly explains why. Alec Milius, my hero (maybe anti-hero would be a better description) is in the middle of the recruitment process for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). He is having a conversation with one of the examiners, a serving SIS officer named Rouse. They’re talking about the ‘special relationship’, which is a topic that comes up all the time on this side of the Atlantic. (The British are obsessed about our political alliance with Washington in a way that most Americans are not). This long section is very closely based on my own experience of being approached for recruitment by MI6 when I was about 25.

The first 100 or so pages of A Spy By Nature are very dense and intimate – this is what I meant about the structure being unusual. Normally with thrillers you get a Big Bang opening and then a series of events in the first half dozen chapters which propel the story along. In A Spy By Nature, however, you live inside Alec’s head during this incredibly nerve-wracking, intellectually challenging process of trying to get into MI6. Nobody dies. There aren’t any car chases or explosions. It’s all cerebral.

There’s another interesting thing about p69. As far as I can remember, this is the first mention in the book of the possibility that the UK spies on America, and vice versa, which later becomes the theme of the story. Alec is placed by MI6 inside a British oil company, selling doctored research information about the Caspian Sea to a rival American company. When A Spy By Nature was published in the UK back in 2001, I expected people to be stunned or appalled at this suggestion, but nobody batted an eyelid. Given everything that’s happened in the seven years since I finished writing it, I suspect that little has changed…
Read an excerpt from A Spy By Nature and learn more about Charles Cumming and his books.

--Marshal Zeringue