A thumbnail sketch in “A Foreign Country” illustrates Kell’s quandary. “It occurred to him, as it often did in the depths of the night, that he knew only one way of being – a path that was separate to all others. Sometimes it felt as though his entire personality had grown out of a talent for the clandestine; he could not remember who he had been before the tap on the shoulder at twenty.”
Kell broods, to be sure, but he also proves nimble at switching aliases, popping hotel safes, and sizing up unexpected threats. During a recent interview from England, Cumming discussed the future of Kell, the differences between American and British spies, and whether the notion of a happy spy is an oxymoron. Following are excerpts:
On the inspiration for the book: There’s been a scandal over here involving Witness B, an MI5 officer – MI5 being domestic security, MI6 being foreign intelligence. Witness B was accused of being present at an aggressive interrogation of a man called Binyam Mohamed. [Mohamed, a UK resident originally from Ethiopia, in 2010 agreed to a settlement worth a reported 1 million pounds from the British government after a lengthy legal fight over whether intelligence services conspired with Americans and allowed torture during rendition.] Mohamed was taken by the CIA and rendered through North Africa and then sent to Guantanamo Bay because the Americans believed that he was a potential terrorist because he’d been in Pakistan and Afghanistan immediately after 9/11.