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A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming

A Foreign Country (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Charles Cumming

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2803140,328 (3.77)16
Title:A Foreign Country
Authors:Charles Cumming
Info:St. Martin's Press (2012), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 368 pages
Collections:Read but unowned
Tags:fiction, thriller, espionage

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A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming (2012)


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The principal protagonist is Thomas Kell, a recently ‘retired’ officer in MI6 who is currently awaiting subpoena as a witness in a prosecution arising from alleged incidents of ‘extraordinary rendition’. Out of the blue he receives a call from a former colleague asking for help tracing the woman who has been chosen by the powers that be as the next head of MI6, who appears to have disappeared while on a holiday visit to the south of France.

Having nothing better to do, Kell agrees to help, flying down to Nice to try to pick up her trail. Cumming gives a fascinating insight into low level spycraft, all of which will certainly lead me to change my own habits when staying in a hotel!

The novel has constant twists and turns, but never loses its basic plausibility. It did, however, keep taking me by surprise, and I found it an immensely enjoyable read. There is a more serious element to the novel though, with Kell’s departure from the Service allowing for detailed consideration of the various sides of the argument around extraordinary rendition.

Cumming isn’t John le Carre – he may have the detailed knowledge of the field but he doesn’t have le Carre’s masterful prose (but then who else has?) ( )
  Eyejaybee | Jul 4, 2016 |
If you like spy novels, you'll really enjoy this one. It has everything: great writing, a tricky story, good tradecraft, and a satisfying ending. The plot moved along at a good clip and the characters were developed well enough- I particularly liked the fact that the resolution of the story wasn't dependent upon a Rambo-type figure, just great thinking and operational excellence. I am bothered only by one detail toward the end that contributed to the conclusion, but I'll continue to think on that point.

In addition to the list of 'successors to LeCarre' anointed by reviewers over the years (ie. Seymour, Littell, etc.), I think Cumming may also need to be named. He seems to have the background, ideas, and facility with the language that puts him among the best.

I loved this book, almost as much as I love 'discovering' writers in my favorite genre who happen to have a back catalog I can explore! On to more from this author for me.... ( )
  gmmartz | Jun 21, 2016 |
I, too, am a fan of Charles Cumming, and I, too, think that fell short of his best work. Lots of good stuff about trade craft for us espionage devotees; but, for me, it falls down through a gaping hole in its own plot, which I won't describe for non-spoiling reasons.
I can only hope that he digs himself out of that hole in time for books 2 and 3 of this projected trilogy. ( )
  johnwbeha | Nov 18, 2015 |
When the woman who is about to take over as head of SIS, formerly known as MI6, goes missing from her vacation in France, Tom Kell, a former agent who recently left the service under a cloud of allegations, is unofficially assigned to find her quietly, without anyone learning that she is gone.
Well constructed, with a lot of humorous turns of phrase. “Nice was an antiseptic playground for rich foreigners who didn't have the imagination to spend their money properly.” Not that this is a funny book, but it at times has an attitude that I appreciate. I would have liked more of this. ( )
  BillPilgrim | Jul 14, 2015 |
Very good spy thriller. With this book, which won the Bloody Scotland award 2012, Cumming has established himself as the proper heir of John le Carre, though the reason he clinched the prize may have a lot to do with the happy end he provided, a sin never committed by le Carre.

(MIND! SPOILERS AHEAD!) The story in a nutshell involves the first female C of MI6 who has a hidden history (a foreign country) that suddenly becomes crucial. She gave birth to an illicit child that was adopted by French foster parents who get cruelly murdered in Egypt. The latter triggers a search for the legitimate mother of the sole heir. Hence she gets to see her 30 plus son finally. Only he is not her son, but a DGRI (French secret service) spook controlled by a French agent seeking revenge on her. Thomas Kell, a disgraced ex MI6 spy, is called back to monitor the whereabouts of the MI6 C in waiting, who has suddenly disappeared (for a short trip to Tunisia with her new found son). Thomas soon locates his former boss, initially confusing her interactions with the younger French man as a love affair, but at some stage realising he is her illicit son. Everything seems fine, until something strange happens on the way back to France on the ferry. Thomas notes that the ‘son’ studiously avoids an older man in the dining room. Meanwhile Thomas’ own approach to the son triggers a search of his room. So then his suspicions are raised and soon enough something dirty crops up – Thomas finds out at long length that two funerals have been held for the real Francois who is being kept somewhere in southern France. He breaks the news to the new C and jointly they decide to trap the French without the rest of MI6 knowing. The fake Francois gets invited to England for another e-union with his mom. The house is completely wired. A whole team sitting next door – hoping for a trail back to the real Francois who’s held hostage. The last 100 pages are more or less fluent and the action is dense and unstoppable. Fake Francois gets called back to France, his ploy being foiled with the French knowing, but the English spy team manages to postpone this news for Francois the fake. Once he finds out the hunt is on. The team follows him on his improvised escape by taxi, train, plane. They only lose track of him in the Paris metro, but then they have gotten hold of fake identity and credit card details and trace him back to a hotel in Paris, where he gets killed in cold blood (I love that scene - raw, violent, yet icy) by a Algerian thug (part of the French hostage team). This young tug is recognised by Thomas, caught, and blackmailed into a confession and witness protection programme. Next a hired team of British ex special forces breaks into the rural country house where the real Francois is held, with plenty of killing (nice, terrible deaths, especially of the guy in the swimming pool who gets up again, is clearly lethally afflicted, droning on, trying to escape while bleeding profusely, having lost his mind, who gets shot on the go by one of the British mercenary types just before he reaches the edge of the field, while Thomas can’t quiet pull the trigger himself). Happy end. I quite like the totally unexpected sex scene as well. Nicely written, real, and yet subdued. ( )
  alexbolding | May 21, 2015 |
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“A Foreign Country” is silkily written, and more cool than hot. Cumming, whose earlier novels include the enthusiastically received “Trinity Six,” describes exotic locales with detail and affection, and is relatively sparing in his use of bang-bang, at least until a big, gory ­Hollywood-ready finish.
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When Amelie Levene, who in six weeks is due to take over as the first female Chief of MI6, disappears without a trace while in the south of France, it is the gravest crisis MI6 has faced in more than a decade. Britain's top intelligence agents turn to one of their own: disgraced former MI6 officer Thomas Kell. The trail leads Kell to France and Tunisia, where he uncovers a shocking secret and a conspiracy that could have unimaginable repercussions for Britain and its allies.… (more)

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