Box 88 by Charles Cumming


published 2020




I’ve read a few Charles Cumming books (though apparently haven’t blogged on any) and they are always an enjoyable easy read, just the thing if you are a spy fiction fan with a hankering. I like many genres of books, but sometimes I will just know that I need a Cold War thriller. (I think of that as a genre, and the setting doesn’t actually have to be of that era, it is a style of story.)

I liked this one very much: it opens with that classic moment: a phonecall from an old friend, news of a death, a decision to go to a funeral. After a slightly confusing section, it turns into a clear double-timeline story: In contemporary London, some bad guys are after Lachlan Kite, with a desperate need for information about something that happened in 1989. It was a big deal at the time for the people involved (one of them the person whose funeral has set things going), but why does it matter? And Lachlan’s colleagues and friends need to find out what has happened to him.

The other strand of the book tells the story of his life in his late teens: culminating in a summer holiday in a villa in the south of France, with the wealthy family of a schoolfriend, Xavier. There are connections with Iran (10 years after the revolution), worries about terrorism, and an important man coming to stay. This is a spy story, and Lachlan has been semi-‘recruited’ and is on the alert, but he is also like every other 18-year-old, then and now: worried about his A levels, drinking too much, fancying girls, listening to music. He is hanging around with his best friend, smoking and swimming in the pool, enjoying the glimpse of the high life. 

Everyone is very class-conscious – Lachlan went to a school which is clearly Eton (though named Alford in the book) but did not come from a wealthy or upmarket background. He has a rather bleak and hard-working home life, and a distant mother, so we get the contrast with the trip to the welcoming family, the best friend, the sunshine villa and the pool.

The atmosphere of the time is beautifully done, and very much with the feel that Cumming remembers it rather than researched it – I recognized so much of the detail. I was also very familiar with the international politics of the time, and enjoyed the going over of it.

I have one tiny catch – and I truly only offer this because everything about the book was so authentic – and that was that I don’t think the motherly hostess would have suggested that the teenage girl cover up with a ‘pashmina’ in 1989: that name for a cashmere shawl didn’t become common till much later. But, I am forever tripping over anachronisms and being fussy and pedantic about books set in the past, and I was hugely impressed by the absence of such mistakes in this one.




The thriller plot was very good and he kept one step ahead of the reader. It was involving and exciting, switching between the two lines, but – again, unlike so many books – this was not at all confusing. There was a lot of tension and jeopardy, and Lachie’s constant low-level feeling of dread in the 1989 sections was very well done, very imaginable given the strange situation he found himself in as an 18-year-old. An appealing cross between being in trouble with the teachers, and putting people’s lives in danger. No snitching, vs betraying your country.



Good descriptions: ‘he was a triple-dyed shit of outsized ego, possessed of boundless tenacity and cunning. Such characteristics were always an asset to any team.’ But that is not – of course – Lachlan, a great protagonist. I don’t think it’s spoiler-esque to say that it seems he will be back in future books.

The Box 88 of the title is a secret organization – doing what? Goodies or baddies? You will have to read the book to find out...

Pictures of the idealized south of France holiday from fashion magazine of the era.

Comments

  1. I know just what you mean about the Cold War thriller style, Moira. There is something about that sort of book, and I can see why you consider it a separate category. This one sounds very good, and I give the author credit for handling the dual timeline well. I do enjoy books written that way, but they're not easy to create. And it's very good to hear that most of the details are authentic. I always get pulled out of a story when the author isn't mindful of what things would have been called at a certain time, or what people would/wouldn't have done.

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    1. Yes Margot - I think when the Cold War ended we were all delighted, but spy fans wondered what would happen to to that key genre. But as it turned out, there are great books still being written ever since - still plenty of ways to entertain whether historical or modern or both.
      And details always important.

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  2. Moira, yours is the second positive review I'm seen for this, so I'm naturally tempted. I've read two from him, one I really liked - A Colder War, one less so but ok -Typhoon, but they were way back in 2011 and 2014. It's been a while. Maybe I should read the others from him in the tub, before investing in another book. (I'm pondering an embargo again!!!!) Is it long?

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    1. Might be worth a try - but then again, you could pick something by him you already have. Do you have one called A Foreign Country? I read and liked that one, and also Trinity Six. I find him reliably good.

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  3. I did not even know Cumming had a new book. What a great surprise! And glad to hear that you liked it. I don't especially love the title, but that's not really important.

    I do like Cumming's writing. I have read four of his books and the only one I was disappointed with was Trinity Six. I plan to read all of his books, but I can wait until it is available here.

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    1. I was just saying to Col that I liked Trinity Six! But looking him up I see there are a few more by him that I haven't read yet, so nice to have them in reserve for that moment when I want a spy book. Box 88 I got a review copy, it just came out here a short time ago.

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  4. Thank you for the reminder about Charles Cumming. I read The Man Between and liked it a lot but then forgot to look out for more books by the same author.
    I'm a sucker for spy stories, especially Cold War Ones. I discovered Helen MacInnes years ago (why did her books all disappear in a purge?) and find I can still enjoy the books although the world has changed so much since she wrote them.

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    1. I know just what you mean, I often do that, find a book I like then just forget to follow up on the author. I don't think I've read Helen MacInnes, so that's a great tip. Because yes, I don't read them all the time, but I do like to have a supply of spy thrillers, I don't want to run out. I haven't read The Man Between either, so that's another good book to store up.

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  5. Moira, I have not read Charles Cumming's books and I'm glad to have discovered his work, more so since he has written spy fiction including about the Cold War, like this one. It's a genre I enjoy reading in.

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    1. You will like this author I think Prashant, I believe his books will be to your taste. Any fan of true Cold War spy literature will like it.

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  6. I don't tend to go for this kind of novel, but this one does sound good.

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    1. It's a definite genre Chrissie, and not for everyone. I can often see shortcomings in Cold War spy books (not this one) but I will still always enjoy them: I am a true fan.

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