Box 88 by Charles Cumming

“Box 88” is the start of a new espionage series by le Carré heir Charles Cumming — or at the very least the first in a duology, the author having penned a two-book deal for what HarperCollins has described as a “game-changing” series.

Hyperbolic? Well, perhaps. Not that “Box 88” isn’t worthy of accolades — this is my favourite spy novel of the year, and if you take one thing away from this, it should be that. But not because it’s revolutionary; not because it’s changed the face of the spy novel. Rather, because it’s a refinement of the genre’s tropes. Cumming gets back to the fundamentals, and polishes them to a gleam. He delivers a salvo of exciting action set-pieces, strips his story of political bureaucratese, and tinges his narrative with emotional depth. In a genre saturated with gun-totting renegade operatives, “Box 88” is a novel for the more discerning thrill-seeker.

The titular Box 88 is a covert transatlantic anti-terrorism spy agency that’s blacker than black; even MI6 and the CIA aren’t sure of its existence. Lachlan Kite is one of its agents, recruited from an elite boarding school in 1989, towards the end of the Cold War, to gather intelligence on an Iranian businessman implicated in the Lockerbie bombing, who has ties to the family Kite is staying with in France, at the holiday home of one of his closest friends.

What happens on this operation for the young, inexperienced Kite will have massive repercussions more than 30 years later in 2020, when he is kidnapped off the streets of London by Iranian intelligence, in front of a team of MI5 observes who are watching Kite, hoping to find evidence of Box 88’s existence. Kite’s kidnappers want to know the truth about events three decades ago — and are willing to kill, wound and maim anybody connected to Kite to illicit answers.

Rejecting simplistic linearity, Cumming’s book flits smoothly between timelines, building to a fabulous crescendo of action and revelations; and plenty of reason to return for its sequel. Spy fiction at its very best.

ISBN: 9780008200374
ISBN 10: 0008200378
Imprint: HarperCollins – GB
On Sale: 02/12/2020
Pages: 496
List Price: 29.99 AUD

Review: The Man Between by Charles Cumming

ManBetweenAt first I wondered whether its setup might be a little too on the nose — a spy novelist drawn into real-world espionage — but Charles Cumming’s sophisticated treatment of the narrative, combined with his polished prose, make The Man Between a winner. This is a taut and exciting tale of spy craft, reminiscent of genre masters  John le Carré, Mick Herron and Daniel Silva, that’ll have you turning the pages in a frenzy to learn the fates of its characters.

Kit Carradine is a successful thriller writer who has grown tired of days spent in front of his desktop computer, conjuring fictional scenarios for imagined heroes. He envies the life of his father, a British spy whose career was cut agonisingly short because of Kim Philby’s betrayal —  so when British Intelligence invites him to enter the clandestine world of espionage for the good of Queen and Country, Kit willingly becomes embroiled in a terrifying plot to destabilise the West. Not that he expected to play such a vital role in proceedings; or in fact become a pawn in a game played by duelling intelligence services.

Lara Bartok  is a leading figure in Resurrection, a violent revolutionary movement whose attacks on prominent right-wing politicians have spread hatred and violence throughout the West. Kit’s objective is to make contact with her in Morocco — a simple handover, nothing more — and return to his life as though nothing happened. Of course, things don’t pan out as Kit, or his handler (who has secrets of his own) expect.

Kit Carradine is an interesting protagonist.  He is genre-defying, in that he is a civilian thrust into the life of a spy, but acutely aware he’s living the realisation of a trope of countless thrillers we’ve all read. Having made a career of imagining narratives and writing his characters out of dangerous scenarios, he has unconsciously trained himself to have the mental fortitude for the life of a spy; a quick-thinker, often able to talk his way out of trouble. But there are occasions when Kit comes across as a little too cool-headed, and his persona a tad contrived; when he seems impossibly placid given the life-or-death situation he funds himself in. Thankfully Cumming rarely allows the reader time to draw breath; just when you begin to question (and envy) and deliberate over Kit’s exceptional bravery, the story veers in a new direction. And ultimately, this is a genre that demands, at the very least, a slight willingness to accept the improbable.

The Man Between is a smart, gripping, torn-from-the-headlines page-turner. And quite possibly the beginning of a new series, which you’ll want to jump on board with from the start.

4 Star

ISBN: 9780008200329
Format: Paperback
Pages: 368
Imprint: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publish Date: 5-Jun-2018
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

 

 

 

Review: A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming

Divided Spy

Relentlessly fascinating, taut, atmospheric and immersive — get out your thesaurus and start looking for new superlatives. Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy deserves them all. Quite simply, spy thrillers don’t get much better than this.

While I hate revealing my ignorance, I must admit I was not familiar with the work of Charles Cumming prior to grabbing a copy of A Divided Spy from the shelf. I was looking for a page-turner, having just invested several hours in a book that was taking me nowhere but an unpleasant abyss, and the quotes accompanying the blurb seemed to promise as much. And for once, the blurb undervalued what was delivered: one of the best spy thrillers I’ve read in years.

A Divided Spy is the third book in Cumming’s Thomas Kell series, and while new readers mightn’t appreciate the depths of some of the relationships, and be privy to the entirety of their backstory, the novel can be read as a standalone. And if you’re anything like me, it’ll only entice you to immediately add the preceding novels to your reading stack!

Kell is a former MI6 officer, but after a lifetime of dedication to Queen and Country, and an operation that went particularly bad, he’s retired from the service. His days are now perfunctory, fueled by a desire for revenge against the Kremlin who took the life of a woman he loved. When Kell is offered a chance at vengeance, he takes it, and embarks on a mission to recruit a top Russian spy and turn him against his superiors — but with the Russian holding key information about  a devastating terrorist attack on British soil, Kell must decide what’s most important to him: personal retribution or protecting innocent lives. And can he live with the consequence of either decision?

A Divided Spy is a literate, exhilarating page-turner. It’s not a wham-bam actioner in the style of Robert Ludlum, whose best work  loosed bursts of violence on readers every second chapter, but that said, those who read thrillers purely for the gunplay won’t be disappointed by the novel’s conclusion. Indeed, Cumming’s sparse use of shootouts is precisely what makes the book stand out: it doesn’t need blockbuster action moments to propel the story forward, and keep you entranced. And that’s a surefire sign of a great thriller.

As things stand, A Divided Spy is my forerunner for spy thriller of the year, and it will take something truly spectacular to best it.

ISBN: 9780007467525
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 432
Imprint: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publish Date: 2-Jun-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom