Sunday, 16 September 2012


I had barely finished writing the following when the news came via Ali Karim that A Foreign Country has won the Bloody Scotland award for best crime novel. Congratulations to Charles. And now, rather than being a bit late in getting to it, Irresistible Targets proves timely in the extreme!

Amelia Levene is about to take over as the first female head of MI6 when she sneaks away for a quick vacation in France, and drops completely off the map. Thomas Kell, dismissed from the service because of his complicity in American tortures in the Middle East, is asked to investigate quietly, and discovers a secret which Levene wants to hide, but which leaves her dangerously vulnerable. Kell already is vulnerable, and desperate to get back in the game, so much so he forgets his marriage counselling session on his way out the door to track Amanda down.

It's a good set-up for Charles Cumming's thriller, and it remains intriguing as long as it is about deception, complicity, and ambiguity. Could Levene have been set up by those within the service who don't want her ascension? Or are outside forces at work? Cumming keeps you guessing, although there is a murder which occurs early in the book, offstage, which doesn't appear to send up red flags for anyone involved, except perhaps the clever reader. And you would guess that, as the backstory becomes more clear, any experienced intelligence agent would have jumped at those red flags (forgive the vagueness, but I do wish to avoid spoilers here!).

The set up has echoes of LeCarre,especially with the characters. Although Levene and Kell are both, on the surface, likeable, the deeper Cumming digs into their characters, the less likeable they become. They are professionals, their own characters subsumed beneath the job which is to be done. Likewise, the supporting cast from MI6 are often less than impressive—which is always a real feature of LeCarre, who wanted you to know that most of spy craft is carried out by men and women you'd likely lean away from if they were in the seat next to you in a bar or on a plane.

This creates a real level of ambiguity which Le Carre would always exploit, and which Cumming does to an extent, which is where his novel works best. He's particularly good on conflicts within the service, and between services, though he suffers from a certain residual prejudice for British intelligence. Kell's own failings are ascribed to the influence of the Americans; basically he goes along with them, and pays the price, which is to suggest a kind of superior morality of which there doesn't appear to be much evidence. There is a requisite level of hypocrisy, though—and the idea of nominally allied services battling to establish or preserve areas of influence is a sub-theme that might well have received more space.

But once the set-up becomes clear, the book switches gears, and becomes basically a race-against-time thriller, and much less interesting as a result. The ambiguities of the shadowy plot are resolved by the SAS-like operation, and though we get hints of the lack of real resolution (beyond the immediate crisis) for everyone, especially Kell, one longs for something a bit less well-finished. Cumming is good enough to keep you riveted with the mundane; the bang-bang stuff may be done better by lesser writers. And maybe the best thing about the book is the lovely ambiguity of the title epigraph, from L.P. Hartley, because it's not just the past that is a foreign country.

A FOREIGN COUNTRY by Charles Cumming

Harper Collins £12.99 ISBN 9780007337873

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