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by Charles Cumming
Penguin, January 2007
480 pages
$7.99 GPB
ISBN: 014101783X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

THE SPANISH GAME is Cumming's second Alec Milius spy thriller, following A SPY BY NATURE. In his first appearance, newly recruited Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) agent Alec Milius faces unexpected dangers, double-cross, and the gradual loss of his identity. Now living in exile and anonymity in Madrid, Alec has quit the spying game and left the old life behind -- except that he hasn't.

Alec still lives as though there is someone following him at all times -- always looking over his shoulder, expecting to see one of his old SIS colleagues coming to hunt him down. He uses diversionary tactics even when he's just going out for dinner or shopping. To everyone he meets he gives a false name. He's even in the habit of switching hotel rooms after check-in when he meets his married lover. And when his best friend shows up for an unannounced visit, Alec thinks the worst -- that SIS has sent Saul to betray him.

The story is inspired by real events and draws its plot from the Basque conflict in Spain of the early 2000s. When a prominent local politician disappears, Alec is lured back into the world of intrigue and international espionage from which he has tried so hard to distance himself. His connection to the man is through his current employer, and suddenly Alec finds himself pursued by the police, undercover SIS agents, and one very persistent and mysterious newspaperman with ties to the conflict, although it's never quite clear which side he's on. Alec is followed, kidnapped and tortured, seduced and betrayed by a wide range of characters.

The brilliance of this novel is the complexity with which Cumming paints the picture of Alec Milius and his situation: stroke by stroke, with each stroke adding a layer that changes the big picture. Cumming also provides a glorious panoramic view of Madrid and the Spanish out-country, the perfect setting for the breathless thrill ride that Alec finds himself swept away on until his crash landing into reality. In a world where double-cross is the rule rather than the exception, the image of Alec is a little out of focus until the last bit of polish is added. The true picture of who Alec is and what's going on around him is hidden, glossed over by Alec's own perspective and how it's presented rather than by an objective narrative. What is not hidden is Alec's vulnerability, which, even at the height of his paranoia, makes him a sympathetic hero in a captivating spy thriller.

Reviewed by J.B. Thompson, June 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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