Typhoon and The Trinity Six, two of Charles Cumming’s half-dozen spy novels, are among my favorite espionage tales of recent times. The British press compares Cumming to John Le Carre and Len Deighton, and those two stellar examples clearly show why. For my taste, however, The Spanish Game doesn’t quite rise to their level — despite the fact that The Times of London describes it as one of the six finest spy novels of all time. But, hell, The Times is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and what does he know?
Sadly, The Spanish Game could well have been a superb book had Cumming not chosen to devote the first third of the text to the moping, self-pitying ruminations of his anti-hero, Alec Milius. The novel is essentially a sequel to Cumming’s first book, A Spy by Nature, in which Alec is recruited by MI6 for a special assignment with MI5. Now, it has been six years since Alec fled London in the aftermath of that assignment, a bungled industrial espionage job. He is now living in Madrid in fear of retaliation by the CIA, which he duped on orders from his masters in the Secret Intelligence Service. For godknowsshowmanypages Alec tortures himself with paranoid fears of assassination by the CIA officers whose careers he upended.
The Spanish Game by Charles Cumming (2010) 352 pages ★★★☆☆
However, once the story gets going, Alec’s paranoia recedes into the background in the face of genuine peril, and the pace picks up, The Spanish Game becomes an outstanding story. It features as many twists and turns and surprises as the best of them, once the cast of characters starts filling out: Alec’s boss at the private British bank where he is employed; the boss’s wife, with whom he is conducting a torrid affair; a Basque independence advocate whom Alec interviews and befriends in the course of his work; an officer of MI6, who recruits him to uncover a plot within the Spanish government to kill off Basque (ETA) terrorists with murderers-for-hire; and a dogged reporter for a left-leaning Basque newspaper. If this all sounds complicated, it is. The interaction of these fascinating characters is wondrous to watch.
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