One genre of literary fiction that has never gone out of fashion is the good old spy novel. From Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent to the late John Le Carre’s posthumously published final book, Silverview, the genre has captivated readers for well over a century (I would argue longer than that, too). With No Time To Die finally in cinemas, delighting and dividing James Bond fans in equal measure, one could say that the Golden Age of Spy Fiction is alive and well, with no signs of slowing down. Thank goodness for that, because thanks to social media websites understanding that I like books, my various feeds and timelines are full of authors and publishers advertising books that I might actually enjoy.
One such author is Charles Cumming, who has been publishing novels in the spy genre since 2001 and A Spy By Nature. He slipped through my radar, I must admit, but when Facebook highlighted his recent book, Judas 62, my interest was piqued. I found out it was the second book in a series and I was intrigued enough to purchase a copy of the first book, Box 88. I was very glad I did. It’s a thrilling page-turner, with some very compelling characters, interesting locations, and a story that is quite plausible, despite the worries that regular folk like you and me may have about the existence or non-existence of ‘deep state’ intelligence organisations.
Box 88 begins with a dramatic re-enactment of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on 21 December 1988. It’s a short but harrowing prologue, and immediately I was engrossed in the chapters that followed. Lachlan Kite is part of Box 88, a clandestine pan-Atlantic intelligence organisation that is run outside the remit of the CIA and its British equivalents. Groomed from the time he attended an elite boarding school, Kite found himself at a very young age spying on a close friend’s family in a luxury resort town in France. Now his past is catching up with him and in the present day, at a memorial service for his friend, who apparently killed himself, he’s abducted and held in a secret location, tortured for information about what happened in France that summer, post-Lockerbie.
Meanwhile the very existence of Box 88 is under threat. Robert Vosse of MI5 is leading an investigation into Kite and his organisation. On his team is Cara Jannaway, his newest recruit, who witnesses Kite’s abduction and finds herself caught between loyalty to Vosse and her determination to find out that makes Kite the man he is. Needless to say, not everything and everyone is what they initally appear to be.
Kite’s abductor, Ramin Torabi, is after information on an Iranian called Ali Eskandarian, who was a guest of the family Kite spent time with. Kite’s training forbids him from revealing the nature of his profession, and the more he lies the worse Torabi and his henchmen treat him. When his pregnant wife is held hostage, the stakes become even higher.
What I really enjoyed about Box 88 was how Cumming spent much of the book with a younger Lachlan Kite, and we got to see how he was heavily influenced by a particular tutor at his college. His reluctant indoctrination into the organisation is juxtaposed by his talent at spycraft, a gift that got him noticed in the first place. The chapters of the book alternate between these sections and the one covering the present day pursuit of Kite’s abductors and the reasons behind it.
For me, Box 88 merged the secretive world of intelligence agencies that Le Carre wrote so well about and the late, lamented BBC series Spooks, which focused heavily on the personalities involved in espionage and the massive human toll it took from them. It takes a special type of person to be a spy. It takes an extra special one to stay alive in the profession. And it takes a very special writer to make the whole thing work. Charles Cumming does, and I will not wait too long to read Judas 62.