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The lady vanishes

14 April 2012

11:00 AM

14 April 2012

11:00 AM

A Foreign Country Charles Cumming

HarperCollins, pp.389, 12.99

The spy thriller is not the easiest genre for an author to choose. In the first place, it is haunted by the shade of John le Carré, past and present. Secondly, the end of the Cold War destroyed the comfortable framework that has underpinned the majority of espionage fiction for the last 40 years.

Undeterred, however, Charles Cumming has succeeded in making something of a speciality of it with intelligent, literate novels like Typhoon and The Trinity Six that approach their subjects from unexpected angles.

A Foreign Country, his sixth, revolves around the disappearance of a senior MI6 officer, Amelia Levene, six weeks before she is due to take up her controversial appointment as head of the service. She vanishes while taking a short holiday in France. There is nothing to suggest that she has defected or been kidnapped. Is her disappearance due to a mid-life crisis or to something more sinister?

Terrified of the news becoming public, a senior colleague brings in Thomas Kell, a middle-aged officer recently discharged from MI6 in disgrace after he was implicated in the use of torture in Afghanistan. Now he’s adrift in self-pity, with his private life disintegrating about him. The offer of work comes as a lifeline.

Kell knows Amelia well and he has every reason to be discreet — a successful outcome might be a passport back to his job; besides, he both likes and respects her. The commission also provides a welcome distraction from his personal problems. The quest takes him from England to France and Tunisia, picking up momentum as it goes. Along the way, Kell attracts a motley band of assistants — all of whom are working ‘off the books’.

The search for Amelia turns out to be merely the first act of a far more complex story. A personal tragedy from her past becomes entangled with an utterly ruthless intelligence ploy to leverage influence in North Africa in its volatile, post-Arab Spring phase. The violence escalates as Kell attempts to deal with both issues.

Private enterprise rears a particularly ugly head on the other side of the Channel. The story builds to a gory and eminently satisfactory confrontation near Toulouse.

It is refreshing to find a spy novel where MI6 is competing against DGSE, its French equivalent. Cumming writes knowingly about the routine tradecraft of espionage. He’s good on the mechanics of travel and about his locations. (I imagine few readers will be tempted to take a package tour to Tunisia after finishing this book.) Though his characters are economically described, they are plausible and effective.

Best of all, perhaps, is the sheer pace of the narrative. Kell and his associates are constantly on the move, both literally and metaphorically; and the reader has to follow suit, partly because we come to care about Kell and his allies.

I read the novel on a plane journey and made the happy discovery that the book is perfect travel reading because, once you’ve started it, it’s not easy to put it down. Pack it with the beach towel.

Andrew Taylor’s latest book is The Anatomy of Ghosts.

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