Cover image of "Box 88," a novel about a secret Anglo American spy agency

Assume that the people who call the shots at MI6 and the CIA had grown so frustrated by the 1980s at the restrictions imposed on them by politicians that they decided to work around them. The two agencies then came together in a “special alliance” to create an off-the-books Anglo American spy agency with a budget that grew to $7 billion three decades later. Mysteriously, it’s called BOX 88. And it’s all a secret to everyone, including the FBI and MI5. If you can swallow that premise you’ll love Charles Cumming’s novel of international intrigue, BOX 88. The story is engaging throughout, the characters vividly portrayed, and the suspense heart-stopping. If you enjoy spy fiction, and the foolishness doesn’t set your teeth on edge, don’t miss this one.

Tragic events, three decades apart

The novel’s cast of characters is extensive enough that Cumming feels the need to list them all at the outset. But the most consequential of them are these:

  • Lachland Kite, known as Lockie. British, an intelligence officer now head of BOX 88.
  • Xavier Bonnard, Lockie’s childhood friend. Son of wealthy French businessman Luc Bonnard.
  • Billy Peale, a history teacher at Lockie and Xavier’s high school, Alford College.
  • Michael Strawson, a veteran CIA officer who co-founded BOX 88 and became Lockie’s mentor.
  • Cara Jannaway, a talented rookie officer in MI5.
  • Ali Eskandarian, an Iranian highly placed in his nation’s government as an adviser to the president.

The action shifts from the present day to the summer of 1989, when something tragic took place. As events rush forward in the present, we gradually learn what happened three decades earlier in that fateful summer.

BOX 88 (BOX 88 #1) by Charles Cumming (2020) 498 pages ★★★★★ 

Aerial view of London's Canary Wharf district, where much of the action occurs in this novel about a secret Anglo American spy agency
An aerial view of London’s Canary Wharf district, the locale of much of the action in BOX 88. Image: The Times

The Lockerbie bombing launches the tale

BOX 88 opens poignantly recalling how Libyan terrorists brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988. We learned years later that the attack was ordered by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. But in 1989 BOX 88 was convinced that an Iranian businessman named Ali Eskandarian was responsible. And, worse, they believed, he was planning a far more disastrous attack using sarin gas in the New York subway system. It was this belief that led BOX 88 to recruit Lachland Kite directly out of Alford College. Because Lockie was to spend the summer in the south of France with his friend Xavier Bonnard—and Ali Eskandarian was scheduled to visit the Bonnard family for an extended stay. Lockie would be the eyes and ears of BOX 88 when the Iranian arrived.

A funeral in London, and a kidnapping

So much for the summer of 1989. In the present day, the action turns violent almost immediately. Xavier Bonnard, dissolute and unfocused throughout his life, has killed himself. And when Lockie attends the funeral in London, he encounters an Iranian man who promises to tell him what he knows of Xavier’s death. Eager for details, as he doubts his friend was a suicide, he sets off for lunch after the funeral with the Iranian—only to be kidnapped. It seems to MI5, and to Lockie as well, that the men behind it are officers of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, MOIS.

Spies “running off the books for almost forty years”

Luckily for Lockie, and for BOX 88, MI5 has been shadowing Lockie because they have received “concrete evidence that Lachlan Kite is a spy” despite his cover as a London-based businessman in the oil industry. “Here is a man we are told is the operational commander of a secret Anglo American spy unit that’s been running off the books for almost forty years.” And now a team of young MI5 officers is trailing Lockie. Just one of them, Cara Jannaway, manages to witness the kidnapping. And that sets her off on the trail of the Iranians.

About the author

Photo of Charles Cumming, author of this novel about a secret Anglo American spy agency
Charles Cumming. Image: Variety

Charles Cumming was born in Scotland in 1971 and educated at Eton College and the University of Edinburgh. According to a Russian source quoted on Wikipedia,”In 1995 Cumming was approached for recruitment by the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) but did not go on to work for them.” I’ve read elsewhere that he did in fact work indirectly for MI6 but as an agent, not as an officer on the payroll. To date, he has written a total of 11 spy novels. BOX 88 is the 10th. The 11th, JUDAS 62, its sequel, will appear in December 2022. Cumming has three children and lives in London.

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