Kell isn’t a man of derring-do like James Bond or Jack Reacher. Instead he relies on a mixture of smarts and intuition to solve problems of international intrigue.
Cumming keeps things moving with plenty of surveillance and tricks of the trade, but retains enough plausibility to make his hero relatable. Like George Smiley and other literary spies, Thomas Kell fascinates because of the constant tension between his ideals and the pragmatic reality of his trade.
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: