Review of “A Foreign Country” by Charles Cumming

Charles Cumming has become one of my favorite spy-novel writers.  This book is the first of his 3-book Thomas Kell  series, and was published in 2012. Unfortunately I read them out of order and “A Foreign Country” (2012)  should have been my first read within the Thomas Kell series.

Cumming uses different protagonists in his novels, and all of them are somewhat flawed (I mean this as a compliment) and very similar.  His main character in “A Foreign Country”, is Thomas Kell , a disgraced British ex-spy helping his old friends out of a jam with the hope of “coming in from the cold”. He has many weaknesses, including excessive drinking and a failed marriage, but is basically a good man trying to do the right thing in a murky world. He is a clever operative, but is no superhero. I find the lack of superhero status to be refreshing: unlike a large number of American thrillers, Cumming’s protagonist is smart, but fairly normal.

For me, the high point of this book was the conclusion, containing an amount of violence that was not characteristic of some of the other Cumming novels I have read. I found Cumming’s usual atmosphere of paranoia very well-developed and compelling. Particularly strong scenes included Kell breaking into a hotel computer. This scene does not sound like it should amount to much, but it was constructed very cleverly and seemed highly realistic. I also enjoyed a scene  in which a highly skilled antagonist was being followed by Kell and several amateurs. The discussions of tradecraft in each these situations were highly engaging and seemed very real to me.

I did have a number of difficulties with this book. As an American, it gets a little tiresome reading about American intelligence agents as having very low moral standards.  Americans don’t play a large role in this story and are mostly involved as part of Kell’s backstory. I guess this portrayal of American intelligence agents is an important part of the British spy-story tradition, and Cumming certainly continues that tradition. In this case, the backstory did not seem very compelling. My greatest difficulty with this book dealt with Cumming’s portrayal of French intelligence. I had a little difficulty believing they were that evil or that incompetent, and as a result I had trouble buying into the plot premise of “A Foreign Country”.

In summary, this was a good read, but I feel this was my least favorite of Cumming’s novels. Since it was the first in his Thomas Kell series, I can say without hesitation that his work has improved with his subsequent efforts. This is by no means a bad book, however, and for a reader who enjoys a protagonist with flaws, stories high on intellectual content, with relatively little gunplay, this is highly recommended. I found “A Foreign Country” very enjoyable.

I obtained a copy of this book through inter-library loan at my local library. I have read 5 of Charles Cumming’s books and sought out this book.

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Review of “A Spy by Nature” by Charles Cumming

This was a really enjoyable read. As an aspiring thriller writer, Charles Cumming’s “A Spy by Nature” (2001) really hit a home run with me, and was one of the best books I have read recently. I have read several of his books previously, and I enjoyed them very much. His books are more cerebral than the typical American thriller. There is very little real “action” in the traditional sense, but there is a lot of effective mood-setting. No guns were directly involved in the writing of this book. I found that refreshing, and probably a lot more realistic than the typical ex-Navy Seal superhero inhabiting so many  American thrillers. This would be the kind of book I enjoyed reading and would like to write.

Charles Cumming is a British writer, in the tradition of John le Carré and Len Deighton. I don’t think he reaches the level of these authors, but that is not meant to be criticism. Le Carré and Deighton set a very high bar. Cumming is an excellent writer. This was his very first published novel. The first part of this book deals with the recruitment of a young spy and is based on the author’s actual experiences. I found this section of the book very interesting, since it was a very realistic portrayal of Cumming’s own experience receiving the “tap on the shoulder” and being recruited for the intelligence service.  It had only a peripheral relationship to the second half of the book, but did set a mood for what was to follow.  The second part of the book was about an industrial espionage situation and could have stood on its own. It was certainly not written from a formula.

Cumming’s protagonist, Alec Milius, is a young aspiring spy. He has many flaws, and to me, these weaknesses make him an attractive main character. The pressures of living a double life affect Milius, and Cumming is masterful at establishing an atmosphere of almost total paranoia. The main character makes bad choices under pressure, and Cumming arranges a web of pressures of all sorts for his protagonist. I particularly liked Cumming’s technique of using a conversation as a sort of gunfight without guns. Cumming uses a first person narrative to have the reader see his protagonist’s thoughts, and Milius provides the reader his own thoughts on what is possibly behind what the other character is saying. Perhaps Milius is correct, perhaps he is mistaken. As a reader, this technique really kept me interested and guessing throughout the book.

If any reader of this blog is looking for a cerebral spy story heavy on atmosphere and light on gunplay, I highly recommend Charles Cumming. I would suggest to a reader that they read this novel first, although his other novels that I read previously were able to stand alone quite well.

If the reader is interested, I am including a link to a podcast from the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. Apparently they provide podcasts of authors visiting on book promotion tours. I came across one including Charles Cumming promoting his most recent (2017) book “A Divided Spy.”

https://poisonedpen.com/2017/02/21/a-conversation-cumming-howe-coonts-the-poisoned-pen/

The podcast link is shown at the bottom of the linked page. It also includes interviews with KJ Howe and Stephen Coonts.

I obtained this book via interlibrary loan from my local library. I sought it out after reading and enjoying several of his other books.

Review of “Chasing Ivan” by Tim Tigner

I received this novel for free from a BookBub offer. It turned out to be a prequel to a three book series already written which I have not read. It was fairly short, actually more of a novella than a novel. It is a clever way to introduce an author to a reader. It worked for me since I had never heard of Tim Tigner before the BookBub offer.

I liked the pace of the book. The writing was very good, and the pace of the story was quick. I read this book in a pretty short time, since the writer kept the tension of the book very tight throughout. The writer had a few twists in store for the reader, which is a difficult trick to accomplish in such a short book.

 

On the negative side, I found the characters not well developed at all. The protagonist was fairly one dimensional, as were the villains. I prefer my protagonists to be more complex, perhaps with some flaws. I found the plot to be a little preposterous, particularly the way the damsel in distress landed in the hands of the villain. I found it difficult to believe anyone could be that dumb. I also found it difficult to believe the hero’s bosses could be that dumb as well. I imagine the abbreviated length of the story contributed a great deal to the book’s shortcomings.

 

I have a feeling the author’s other books might be a lot better since they would not be hampered by the length, but I haven’t read them. The author’s writing style and ability to keep up the tension will serve him well. This was an entertaining read for me. Some improvements on the characters and the plot, however, are needed. I have a feeling they will come in future, regular-length books.

Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl Victory Parade

 

This is a change-of-pace blog entry. It doesn’t contain much about writing, just a little bit of practice talking about a day of real fun in Philadelphia, the day of the parade celebrating the Philadelphia Eagles’ unlikely run to the Superbowl and their unexpected but exciting win over the Boston Patriots. It was a great day for Philadelphia and its institutions in many ways.

 

The parade was a lot of fun to watch. The weather was cold, but sunny and very clear. The estimates of the audience ranged from 700,000 to 3,000,000 as fans were lined up all along Broad Street and particularly at the Art Museum and Parkway area. The city looked great, Septa did a wonderful job arranging transportation in and out of the city, and the police were very visible but provided a very friendly but effective level of security. Apparently there were few security incidents in spite of the free beer offered by Budweiser. It looks as if a good time was had by all and the parade will be remembered in Philadelphia for a very long time. Some photos of the parade from the Philly.com website are shown below. This is why there are professional photographers. The first picture shows the parade passing Logan Circle just before it got to the Art Museum, which was the parade’s final stop. The second picture shows the parade as it was arriving at the Art Museum.

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The highlight of the parade turned-out to be a profanity-laced speech on the Art Museum steps by Jason Kelce, the Eagles’ center. He added to the festivities by participating in the parade wearing green mummers gear that he borrowed from one of the Mummers’ the night before the parade.  I wound up looking at the speech several times, and found it sincere and passionate. Jason Kelce will now be a permanent part of Philadelphia lore. A link to the entire uncensored speech is found below:

https://youtu.be/DhIFNxEz1qc

A picture of Kelce in his Mummers’ garb is shown below:

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