I recently reviewed the latest Charles Cumming spy story: A Foreign Country (2012). Cumming has been highly praised for his work, but while I enjoyed the book, I didn’t think the writer warranted the comparisons he was getting with legends of the genre like John le Carré. But I thought I’d give him another try; this one was published in 2011. The result? My opinion remains the same. He’s good, but not that good.
If I was being very picky – which of course I never am – I’d say this was not really a spy story at all. Rather, it is a mystery story, where an innocent individual finds himself (in this case) inadvertently involved in some sort of conspiracy. It just so happens that the events that make up this conspiracy take place in the secret world of espionage, with the familiar themes of double dealing and betrayal.
Dr Sam Gaddis is a lecturer in Russian History at University College London. At the launch of his book, The Tsars, comparing Peter the Great with ‘the current Russian president Sergei Platov’ (clearly Vladimir Putin) he meets a young woman, Holly Levette, who claims that her recently dead mother has left an archive of material about the KGB. She has been referred to him by a journalist friend of Sam’s, Charlotte Berg, who is also working on a story involving spying. She has been contacted by someone who claims to have explosive revelations about a sixth British spy associated with those recruited by the pre-world war II Soviet espionage agency, the NKVD, during the young men’s years at Cambridge – the Trinity Five (Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross). Charlotte asks Sam to collaborate on a book about it. Her sudden death from a heart attack and his urgent need for money – a tax bill and school fees for his daughter who lives in Spain with Sam’s ex-wife – convince him to go it alone. But what on earth had she discovered? And is there anything new in Holly’s archive?
As you might expect, Sam’s path is not smooth, and he soon has various enemies – though as in most ‘quest’ stories, he finds help as well as hindrance along the way. The story is told largely through his eyes, but other characters also carry the plot at various times, so the reader sometimes knows more than he does, for example when he discards hypotheses the reader knows to be true. This helps with the pace and tension, though it is a slow- building plot, rather than the ‘bang bang kiss kiss’ sort. I am always interested in how a plot about a civilian with lots of powerful enemies can be resolved; it’s not like he can arrest someone. This one finds a quite satisfying mechanism, though I am left with the feeling that the plot, though complex, isn’t really subtle. It comes together, but you can see the magician behind the screen pulling the strings. This may be unfair; I know I’m comparing the way the crucial elements of the plot resolve with ‘the last clever knot’ that Smiley has to unpick in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – and I had to read that twice before I understood it. And of course it all looks simple once you know. The twists and turns are enjoyable, and that’s probably all that matters.
Cumming writes well about people. He is good at quick character sketches, and makes the cast of minor characters come alive. He presents Sam Gaddis as an essentially a good man who believes in ‘human decency’, caught up in events well outside his control – though he manages to deal with it all reasonably well. He has some of the talents needed for his quest; he protests that he is ‘an archives man’, not an investigative journalist, but he is good at following a trail from one piece of evidence to the next. (In a nice touch, his enemies manage to use his ‘archive’ work to trick him temporarily.) He also falls to bits quite convincingly at times, making him more human than some other fictional academic sleuths – Robert Langdon comes to mind. I am less convinced, however, by Holly Levette, and the other woman in the book, Tanya Acocella. At one point Gaddis compiles a list of reasons why Holly, now his girlfriend, might be a ‘plant’, and it’s all too believable. Her reasons for being with him aren’t ever explored. Nor, in my opinion, is Tanya’s motivation adequately explained. This is a pity, because it’s her role that makes the plot a bit mechanistic; she does what is needed by the story, not what comes from being a character that Cumming has fully developed. But hey, it’s a well written thriller with a clever plot. Be grateful for having found a good one. And I do like the end.
You can read more about Charles Cumming here. His next book, A Colder War, is as promised a sequel to A Foreign Country, and will be published in 2014.