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A Foreign Country/Charles Cumming

The espionage novel has taken on many forms and genres in the years I have read these with enthusiasm. As a child I loved Erskine Childers and John Buchan and each dare-devil adventurer normally from public school taking on international conspirators on his own. Then came Ian Fleming and James Bond: debonair, suave, icily ruthless, licensed to kill. Then Len Deighton introduced the working class anti-hero Harry Palmer played by Michael Caine. Next we had spymasters Smiley and Karla playing espionage chess against each other in the more opaque world of Le Carre.

Charles Cumming has taken the form on with Tom Keller, dismissed from MI6 for interrogation of a Jihadist. His technique is the hacking of computers and gizmos to trace a suspect. In this case the controller-to-be of M16, a Frenchwoman called Amelie, has disappeared and he has to find her. He uses his ingenuity, for example by breaking onto the opera system of hotel reservations, to identify her calls and movements. The story which I won’t spoil is somewhat far-fetched but no matter. The characters are more Le Carre than Fleming or Buchan, flawed but clever with messy personal lives. You never knew too much about the family life of Bond or Hannay. It does share with Bond different locations and hotels in Nice, Tunisia but no 5 star ones.

Apart from computer hacking and eavesdropping, the other feature of modern day espionage is the assumption of new identity which plays a role in this novel. Again no plot spoilers. I thought of duplicity and Le Carre, whose father was a fraudster and who understood better than most the nature of those who casually slip from one persona to another.

The final part is something of a page-turner which made me think what an exciting film this would make. Juliette Binoche would make an excellent Amelia and Bill Nighy Tom Keller. Charles Cumming worked for MI6 and must be a sore to them. The novel explores the moral dilemma of being judged in the Court Of Popular Opinion for crossing the barrier of acceptable interrogation to obtain information vital to protect national security so I would not dismiss it as a pulp holiday read but a contribution to the next stage in espionage writing.

About Melanie Gay

A former literary agent with three published novels of her own, Melanie retains her life-long love of the written word and recently mastered the Kindle. She is currently writing a historical novel set in 17th Century Britain and Holland. More Posts