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by Charles Cumming
St Martin's Minotaur, March 2011
416 pages
ISBN: 0312654200

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

While the breakup of the Soviet Union was generally not mourned in the West except by a relatively small number of die-hard Stalinists, fans of the spy novel did experience certain mixed feelings. While retrospective or historical espionage fiction has its undeniable charms, it necessarily lacks the nervous edge of possibility that a contemporary game of cat and mouse between agents of two super-powers can draw upon.

Charles Cumming, author of TYPHOON, originally published in 2008 and now re-issued in the US as a trade paperback, is undeterred by the new reality. From the very first chapter, the book enunciates its narrative in the cool, detached, ironic, and resigned tones of Le Carré at his best.

The events described take place over a decade, from 1997 and the handover of the last major British colony, Hong Kong, to the Chinese, to the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. They are narrated by a middle-aged journalist and freelance SIS agent, Will Lasker. He is not an altogether detached observer - he is a friend of the protagonist, Joe Lennox, a young undercover operative on his first foreign posting in Hong Kong and he dislikes the other major player, Miles Coolidge, an undercover CIA agent more than a decade older than Joe.

Joe is on the verge of scoring his first major professional coup by interrogating a middle-aged Han Chinese man who claims to be a university professor and political dissident who believes that the British government can in some way deter the Chinese from their assaults on human rights, especially on the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang. It falls to Lennox to interrogate him in order to decide whether there is any substance to his story or if he is being planted as a double agent. Before, however, Joe can complete his task, the professor is whisked off to parts unknown by the CIA. A few days later, the CIA, in the person of Miles, triumphs again, when Miles is successful in breaking up Joe and the love of his life, Isabella, and ultimately marrying her.

Shift forward a decade. Both the Brits and the Americans have spies and double agents planted all over China. But a small group of agency mavericks, poured in the Dick Cheney mould, want to foment unrest in the months leading up to the 2008 Olympics in order to undermine what they foresee will be a Chinese propaganda triumph with the successful conclusion of the Games. They encourage a handful of desperate Uighurs to attempt to stage a series of terrorist attacks that they hope will draw attention to the Uighur cause. One of this band is a man who had been sent to Guantanamo following 9/11 where he had been recruited by the CIA to serve as a double agent. Miles Coolidge appears to be involved in this dubious enterprise, while Lennox is sent back to China to keep an eye on his old adversary and to do what he can to foil the plot.

It is only in the concluding chapters of the book that action-driven suspense takes over. Before that, this is a character-driven novel. We are engaged by Lennox, though he is by no means altogether likeable a character, and we wish him well in his moral struggles toward adulthood. Nor does the book conclude with satisfactory rewards to the good and retribution to the bad. Instead, we are left with a Le Carré-esque query: would not we all be better off if the spooks and their masters would simply cut it out and quit trying to shape the world to their own corrupted desires?

Cumming proves in TYPHOON that espionage fiction still provides a rich field for the thoughtful novelist and sustenance for the thoughtful reader. Cool, sophisticated, and engaging, it is at once gripping and challenging and ought not to be missed.

§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, March 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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