Within the (relatively) short space of a few years, Charles Cumming has been favorably compared to such espionage fiction stalwarts as Graham Greene and John le Carre. With the publication of A FOREIGN COUNTRY, his latest novel, it’s time to stop making such comparisons. Cumming has reached the point where he is setting the standard of quality in the field of espionage fiction, establishing a high-water mark to which others must aspire.
A FOREIGN COUNTRY is one of those very rare books that from its first page demonstrates that it’s something out of the ordinary, one of those tales that the reader hopes will never end.... Cumming deftly navigates his readers through a complex yet thoroughly comprehensible plot..."
A FOREIGN COUNTRY is one of those very rare books that from its first page demonstrates that it’s something out of the ordinary, one of those tales that the reader hopes will never end. It begins in 1978 with an account of a short but obviously doomed May-December love affair before jumping to the present and presenting two brief accounts of seemingly unrelated incidents: the brutal and senseless murders of an elderly couple on holiday in Egypt and a street kidnapping in Paris. The narrative then proceeds along a fairly straight path, one that introduces Thomas Kell, a former MI6 officer. When we meet Kell, it has been several months since he was summarily kicked to the curb for an offense that is slowly revealed over the course of the book. Kell’s forced retirement does not sit well with him; he has been frittering away his days, quietly brooding over the loss of his job and perhaps more so over the end of his marriage.
When Kell’s former supervisor at MI6 calls him with the opportunity for a mission --- as well as the chance for redemption and reinstatement --- he jumps at the chance. The mission is of the utmost importance for both MI6 and Great Britain. Amelia Levene, who is about to be take her position as the first female head of MI6, has suddenly gone missing without a trace. Kell is tasked with finding her, and to do so discretely, without the press discovering that there was ever a crisis. Why bring on Kell, you might ask, when there are other active agents who could be called upon to do the job? The answer, as is demonstrated throughout these pages, is that Kell is the best there is at what he does. What follows, after Kell is given the assignment, is a step-by-step presentation of the nuts and bolts of spy craft, presented without explosions or karate (though there is some of that a bit later in the proceedings) and with the suspense quotient ratcheted so high you will want to crawl out of your skin.
Kell finds Levene and ascertains why she suddenly disappeared. Mission accomplished. He notifies MI6 and his job is done. There is just one problem, however. Something about what he has learned does not sit well with him, and he cannot let the matter go. Kell digs a bit deeper and discovers the reason for Levene’s disappearance. Things are not as they seem for Levene. As an innocent life hangs in the balance, Kell, Levene and a clandestine team attempt to save the innocent life of an individual for whom Levene cares deeply yet has never met.
Intrigued? You should be. But a great plot (which A FOREIGN COUNTRY has in spades) is not enough to make a great book. Cumming deftly navigates his reader through a complex yet thoroughly comprehensible plot, dropping this hint and that fact throughout the narrative while simultaneously informing and keeping the reader guessing. Perhaps of most importance, Cumming knows how the world works. The book does not present the scenario --- overworked and tired by now --- that the United States is the root of the universe of evil. Instead, it presents the world, and espionage as it is, with an acknowledgement of what it is not.
If you have found espionage fiction over the past several years to be tedious and repetitious in certain corners, you need to read A FOREIGN COUNTRY. You will fall in love with the genre all over again.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 10, 2012