le 14 novembre 2014
Are the rave reviews from British newspapers on the back cover justified and is Charles Cumming (CC, 41) the new Len Deighton or John Le Carré? This spy novel is his sixth and my first acquaintance with his writing. It is well-paced with 80 chapters in less than 400 pages and situated in the UK, France, Tunisia and (briefly) Egypt, all after the start of the Arab Spring. Its locations are credibly described. The book excels in matters of contemporary spy tradecraft, which is both scary and reassuring.
The plot is little short of ludicrous. There may be rivalry, suspicion, even mutual loathing between the intelligence services of France and Great Britain, but this plot is over the top. Surely, GB has made some inroads in France’s traditional sphere of influence in Africa, notably in Rwanda. But CC took a gamble on the outcome of the Arab Spring, which he may now regret because his triumphant ending now looks ridiculous.
What about characterisation? Antihero Thomas Kell’s childless marriage was on the rocks even before he was dismissed from MI 6 eight months before being recalled again as a consultant. To do what? To find out why the next, not yet-confirmed C of MI 6, a woman, has gone off the radar while in France. CC is not (yet) a formidable author able to put a character stamp on someone with a single damning remark, sentence or paragraph.
Finally, why such a vague book title? Then a rarity, a mistake in the opening sentence. Surely, the call to dawn prayers in Tunis is earlier than 7:00 am? Otherwise, writing about expats is ok, calling them ex-patriots (p. 8 ) is a howler. Hope CC digs deeper politically and strategically, becomes more cunning and less descriptive, focusing on more dangerous and destructive targets than France.
With this, my first Charles Cumming novel, I find myself remembering the happy, total absorption I found years ago when reading my first John le Carre. Yes, A Foreign Country is that good - a premier spy thriller. This awareness of having found an exemplary story teller comes with the first few pages. It is Tunis in 1978 and an au pair has vanished leaving her besotted lover and employer "a married man of forty-one at the mercy of a broken heart..." Ah, but 20-year-old Amelia had not been just any nanny - in addition to making love both employer and employee had enjoyed "a shared aptitude for deceit."
The scene quickly shifts to the present day in Egypt where an older Parisian couple are enjoying the final days of their long dreamed of trip. It ends abruptly when they're found brutally murdered on a moonlit beach near their luxurious hotel. In Paris at approximately the same time a man, a target given only the nickname HOLST is kidnaped.
Could these three disparate events have anything to do with Amelia Levene, the first woman head of MI6 who disappears just before her appointment is to be announced? It falls to former British secret service agent Thomas Kell to find out. He's more than grateful for the opportunity as several months before he was forced out after two decades. He had to be the fall guy, and now he's a mess, in a strange bedroom with one more hangover, and this one "comparable in range and intensity to the reproduction Jackson Pollock hanging on the wall..." His mobile phone rings and he learns that Amelia has vanished. One of his former superiors says, "Find her and we can bring you in from the cold." Kell's not about to pass up this chance for redemption.
After traipsing across the globe he does find Amelia lolling beside a pool in Tunis in the company of a very handsome young man who "moved through the shallows with a slow, self-conscious swagger, a man used to being starred at by women." The reason for her disappearance now seems obvious, but no it was not that at all. Nor was the good looking man who Amelia believed him to be.
And that's just the beginning of personal and political tangles that could mean fini for both Tom and Amelia.
A Foreign Country is one of the most innovative, enthralling, surprising spy tales I've read in far too long. Cumming is an astounding author, his story intrigues pulling one in with every twist and turn, his words are polished. He has the ability to fully draw a character with few words. Cumming has been called an "elegant writer." True. If you don't usually read spy fiction, start here!
- Gail Cooke