Familiar terrain, again

There are very few ‘thrills’ to speak of in this sixth spy thriller from former MI6 recruit Charles Cumming but it’s a pretty solid look at the real life of a spy — so essentially unromantic from what Hollywood would have us believe through its Bond and Cruise movies.

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Published: Fri 21 Sep 2012, 9:39 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 12:35 AM

Cumming bases his works on his “brief but extremely interesting” experience with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), that approached him in 1995. It doesn’t exactly give him bragging rights for having ‘been there, done that’, but it’s still what inspired him to turn author in the first place.

In A Foreign Country, Britain’s chief spy Amelia Levene has vanished without a trace six weeks before she’s due to take over as ‘C’ at Vauxhall Cross, leaving the country’s prestigious intelligence agency scrambling for damage control. Of course, the first question you’d want to ask her subordinates would be how on earth they managed to pull that one off. But if we are to give them the benefit of doubt, it’s obvious that any and/or all operations to ‘retrieve’ her must be off the books on this one. If word leaked within the headquarters of Vauxhall Cross or (heavens forbid) the press, the blowback would have been, as Cumming fittingly terms it, incendiary.

And so they call in disgraced MI6 officer Thomas Kell. He’s an old hand, forced into early retirement eight months ago by a scandal that didn’t leave him, for the first time in 20 years of faithful espionage work, as the last man standing. More importantly, he’s the only one the high priests at SIS trusted to bring their chief home.

Kell, who can’t pretend anymore that he hadn’t been dreaming of a second chance, finally assents and is back on board before you can hum the catchy opening notes for the Mission Impossible title track. His search takes him from Paris to North Africa, where he discovers a secret to Amelia’s past so big, it threatens to destroy her future.

Cumming’s players are rich in characterisation, from the tough-as-nails persona Amelia has carved in order to claw her way to the top, to the reliable and resourceful Thomas Kell, who considers loyalty to the service paramount but has to bear the indignity of a crumbling marriage as a direct consequence of all the secrecy and lies.

The author has a writing style so wonderfully illustrative (in a poetic sort of way) you can’t help being appreciative of the expressions he uses to drive his points home. Subtle humour comes easily to him though pace does not. Correct me if I’m wrong, but by chapter 35, if an author still has you wondering where the book is heading, he’d better hope all his readers suffer from the same unfortunate foible of finishing whatever they start. Spying is waiting, it’s true, but the same is not necessarily true of a reader’s attention. In the book’s favour though, it does pick up towards the very end, when they launch an unauthorised operation in France (obviously way out of their territorial control) to set present records — and past indiscretions — straight.

He may be writing about covert operations on foreign soil, but the world of spies for Cumming is definitely familiar terrain. It wouldn’t be a waste of a weekend to let him lead the way.


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