The narrative shifts between the events of this holiday and the (Covid-less) present day, when Kite is abducted from Bonnard’s funeral by Iranian intelligence, who threaten to kill his pregnant wife if he doesn’t reveal the truth about what took place 30 years earlier. There’s plenty of cloak-and-dagger action here, and the requisite number of twists and turns, but it’s the characterisation that makes this exploration of friendships, familial relations and betrayal a stand-out read.
In his early, immaculate spy novels, Cumming perhaps lacked a protagonist to stand comparison with John le Carre’s unforgettable George Smiley. But now, in Lachlan Kite, he has one.
Yet Kite is no cerebral crusader for justice — he’s firmly in the thick of the action. First recruited in 1989 from an elite boarding school, Kite joins a shadowy agency called Box 88 and is sent to France to investigate an Iranian businessman implicated in the Lockerbie bombing...
With a lavish sprinkling of Bond and more than a teaspoonful of the Circus, this is a high-quality spy story.
Kite’s transition from honourable schoolboy to brutally effective agent no doubt draws on Charles Cumming’s brief involvement with MI6. His novels are never propelled by mayhem and the scenes that are most keenly felt are those that hark back to Kite’s years of innocence, sketched with skill. Ideal for anyone nostalgic for their first love and the whiff of Marlboro Lights.
Weaving back and forth between the late 1980s, when Kite was recruited to Box 88, and the present day, Cumming delivers an ambitious coming-of-age story combined with an enthralling spy thriller. Strong characterisation, a well-engineered structure, a rich back story and solid tradecraft — Cumming once dallied with MI6 himself — mean the pages virtually turn themselves. Cumming is especially strong on how the events of decades ago still shape our world today, especially among the shadows.
In 2020 Lockie Kite, who works for the titular top-secret agency, is being tracked by both MI5 and foreign spooks. In 1989 we see him being recruited while at his posh school, and then, while staying at a French villa, bugging an Iranian businessman on his mentors’ orders. Atmospheric and full of sharply realised characters and absorbing tradecraft lore, this 1980s narrative displays all Cumming’s gifts, but overall Box 88 is short on jeopardy and suspense, so it feels more like an accomplished extended prologue than a thriller in its own right.