‘Spying is waiting.’ – A Foreign Country, by Charles Cumming

March 31, 2013 at 12:59 pm (Book review, books)

9780312591335  Charles Cumming’s novel had me from page one, on which this sentence appears:

He almost cried out in despair, staring up at the cracked, whitewashed ceiling, a married man of forty-one at the mercy of a broken heart.

The place is Tunisia; the year, 1978. The man with the aching heart is Jean-Marc Daumal, not just a husband but a father as well. As A Foreign Country begins, Jean-Marc is deriving no pleasure from his domestic status. Amelia Weldon, his children’s nanny and the love of his life, has without warning, disappeared.

These events are succinctly narrated in the novel’s first chapter. We then leap ahead in time to the present day.  Jean-Marc Daumal himself disappears from the narrative (at least,  he seems to). Soon we meet Thomas Kell, a former MI6 officer: former not due to retirement – he’s only in his forties – but due to disgrace.

But as the main action of the novel gets under way, Kell is being brought back in from the cold. (Did LeCarre invent that expression? So evocative, really.) His handler Marquand needs his help. It seems that the new head of MI6 – its first female head, in fact – has gone missing while vacationing in the South of France. Marquand is convinced that Kell has the skills and the know how to find out what’s happened to her. But it’s a mission that will have to be conducted completely off the books. And as is always the case in these situations, Kell must face the dangers alone. Even if he succeeds, there will be scant glory at the end.

With some reluctance, Kell agrees to take on this extremely sensitive task. In short order, he finds himself in France:

Kell had forgotten how much he disliked Nice.The city had none of the character that he associated with France: it felt like a place with no history, a city that had never suffered. The too-clean streets, the incongruous palm trees, the poseurs on the boardwalks, and the girls who weren’t quite pretty: Nice was an antiseptic playground for rich foreigners who didn’t have the imagination to spend their money properly. “The place,” he muttered to himself, remembering the old joke, “where suntans go to die.”

I really do enjoy Cumming’s writing. It’s incisive and insightful and full of the flashes of cynical wit that are so very apt for novels of political and international intrigue.

As with most novels in this genre, the plot of A Foreign Country becomes increasingly complex, but never so much so that it becomes hard to follow. Mainly it was just plain fascinating. I couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen next. The genuine article, this: a page turner with both brains and a heart. I never stopped caring about the main characters.

Two quotations appear at the front of A Foreign Country. The first, from which the novel takes its title, is the famous first line from The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently  there.

This is the second:

“There’s just one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job…If you do well you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help. Does that suit you?”
“Perfectly.”
“Then I’ll wish you good afternoon.”

This snatch of dialog comes from Ashenden: Or the British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham. ( Although not published until 1928, the stories that comprise this groundbreaking work were,  for the most part, written during the First World War. They grew out of Maugham’s own experiences while serving as a secret agent for Britain in wartime.)

DP70coverjpeg  The Winter 2013 issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine features a brief review by Larry Gandle  of A Foreign Country. He prefaces it with these remarks:

Spy novels…tend to be long drawn out bores reflecting the reality of the inherent dullness of the profession. Spying can be a lonely occupation in which the less striking the figure the better the spy. They should be dull and unassuming like the books written about them.

Gandle then declares himself no fan of the genre – not surprising, given the above comments. But he goes on to say that this particular novel is exceptional:

Charles Cumming has written a compelling spy thriller that moves along swiftly with realistic characters and many exotic locales.There are numerous pitfalls that Kell must traverse if he hopes to successfully accomplish his mission. The fun rests in watching him work.

Gandle concludes by giving A Foreign Country a warm recommendation – praise indeed from one who is generally not enamored with espionage fiction.

At any rate – I agree with him: it was fun watching the resourceful Tom Kell maneuver his way into and out of dire situations. It was more than fun; it was deeply engaging. And in the end, events come full circle in a way that is most satisfying.

A Foreign Country was the recipient of the 2012 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, awarded by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. In addition, the novel was named Scottish Crime Book of the Year at the Bloody Scotland International Crime Festival last September. (I have  friends who attended that first ever event. This video really drove home how much I missed by not being there!)

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71yx-JWSh6L._SL1500_  Last night we watched a film entitled The Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene. Greene was one of the greatest thriller writers of the twentieth century. In addition, he wrestled with the most profound questions about the human condition. My favorite among his numerous works is The Quiet American. The Dangerous Edge is narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi and features appearances by John LeCarre, John Mortimer, Shirley Hazzard, and Paul Theroux.

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I’ve just begun listening to a Teaching Company course entitled Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History. Quite simply: I am enthralled!

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Early in A Foreign Country, Thomas Kell reflects that “A wise man once said that spying is waiting.” That wise man is John LeCarre.

2 Comments

  1. Susan said,

    I’ve been waiting for this to come out in softcover here. I’ve been waiting since it won all the awards in the UK last year. it sounds very interesting. I enjoyed your review of it, and am glad to see it is as good as what I heard about it last year.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks, Susan. I think you’ll really enjoy the noel. I’m already into Trinity Six and liking it very much.

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