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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