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by Charles Cumming
St Martin's , August 2012
368 pages
ISBN: 0312591330

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Long-time fans of SPOOKS will recall that the earlier episodes used to carry a capsule description that spoke of the challenges faced by the secret agents in reconciling their professional duties with their domestic lives. (After a bit, this element largely faded in favour of the global menace de la semaine, but that's another issue.) A FOREIGN COUNTRY, by the immensely accomplished spy novelist Charles Cumming, focuses squarely on the personal - on private secrets long held, on resentments still festering, on individual feelings overcoming institutional loyalties. At one point, the protagonist Thomas Kell even manages to quote E M Forster's essay "Two Cheers for Democracy" and his famous or, depending on your point of view, notorious opting to betray country rather than friend should the occasion arise.

Only in his early forties, Thomas Kell has been forced into early retirement from SIS (MI6), thrown under the bus by his superiors after something that happened in Kabul, the details of which remain murky until well into the novel. Now he is being called back, on a freelance basis, to look into the inexplicable absence of Amelia Levene, who is about to become the first female head of the agency. Almost immediately following the requisite interview with the outgoing Chief at which the darker agency secrets are transmitted to the incoming head, she beetled off to France, attending a funeral, then a painting class, then nothing at all. Were the secrets she learned too much to bear? Were other interests, Iranian, Chinese, what have you, involved? Or was she merely enjoying a dirty week or two with a well-endowed young man, as the men who were passed over when she was promoted like to think? Kell knows Amelia well and he is beyond agency politics. And so he is drafted.

Cumming reveals what has prompted Amelia's departure slowly and craftily, and I'm not about to spoil his and your fun by letting you in on the secret. But what I can tell you is that what transpires is a tense and taut narrative that flows from Tunis to Wiltshire to Paris to rural France and pits a collection of freelance spooks against the agencies that taught them their craft. What Cumming has managed to pull off is a tale that comes down hard on the side of the individual and personal but manages to avoid any Forsterian sentimentality.

To my mind no crime novel makes a more satisfying holiday read than a well-crafted spy thriller. If you agree, then stuff a copy of A FOREIGN COUNTRY into your bag before you head to the seaside.

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

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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