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A FOREIGN COUNTRY
by Charles Cumming
HarperCollins, March 2012
400 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 0007337868


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Tom Kell, formerly of MI6, was obliged to leave the service after an incident in Afghanistan and is finding life outside the service very dull. Not only that but he has returned to his youthful habit of heavy drinking, so much so that when he wakes in what seems to be a strange house it is some little time before he is able to recognize it as his own. The phone rings and it turns out to be a former superior in MI6, asking his help in finding a missing woman - not just any missing woman but Amelia Levene, shortly to be confirmed as the new head of MI6.

His qualifications for the task, which is extremely urgent, are that he is skilled in investigative techniques, and - just as importantly - completely deniable. International politics are involved, as are internal politics within the service. Kell learns that George Truscott, the favourite for the job, felt very bitter about his failure to obtain it, particularly as it had been given to a woman. It is a question of the old school spy, accustomed to the cold war, on the one hand, and Amelia Levene, the Arab expert, representing the new generation. In addition, there are hints of a feminist agenda and the difficulty women experience in competition with men. The MI6 rivalry is easy to believe and it is used very effectively to set up the story.

Kell's investigations, which take him to France and Tunisia and then back to the UK, contain many twists and provides continual surprises. It seems that Kell can trust absolutely nobody in his frantic search for Amelia. There is a large amount of detail about actual spycraft, including a very tense incident in which the attention of a hotel receptionist is distracted to allow Kell to obtain information from the computer. Even more detailed is the pursuit from a country town in England to a hotel in Paris of a trained agent who must not know that he is being followed. This might have been a little boring had it not been so well done. Cumming manages to provide more convincing and skilled operatives than those who people Stella Rimington's pages.

But there is more to Cumming than a man who understands the ways of the secret service. The main characters are all well drawn and totally believable. This applies even to the shadowy MI6 figures, like the embittered Truscott or the timeserving Haynes, who don't even appear in the novel. He builds around them an always gripping, even though it has a fairly leisurely beginning. The rivalry between the intelligence services of two different countries for political and economic gain, following the events of the Arab Spring, may appear at first a little exaggerated but are certainly not difficult to believe. Perhaps the climax, when it is reached, is over a little too quickly, as if there was an urgency to finish the novel, but that is a minor quibble. Certainly, those who read this novel without having read any of Cumming's previous work may well be tempted to seek them out.

Arnold Taylor is a retired Examinations Board Officer, amateur writer and even more amateur bridge player.

Reviewed by Arnold Taylor, July 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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