Cover image of "Typhoon" by Charles Cumming, a novel about a Washington cabal acting in China

Professor Wang Kaixuan emerged from the waters of the South China Sea shortly before dawn.” So begins this well-constructed tale of high-stakes espionage, betrayal, and unforeseen consequences set in modern-day China. The story revolves around an improbably capable young MI6 agent, his flamboyant CIA counterpart, the young woman they both lust after, and a right-wing Washington cabal and the corporation that does its bidding. The book is well-researched, cogently written, and expertly plotted. If your taste runs to spy thrillers, this is one of the better ones of recent years.

Here’s what happens

In a move all too familiar to CIA-watchers, the Agency is plotting to to destabilize China by supporting the subversive actions of an Islamic group located in the country’s far west. Meanwhile, MI6 has set out to undermine them, since the two countries are operating at cross-purposes in China. The principal actors in this drama are officers of the two intelligence services Joe Lennox and Miles Coolidge. To complicate matters, the two share a girlfriend. And, as we soon learn, the driving force behind the plot is a right-wing Washington cabal.

Typhoon by Charles Cumming (2008) 412 pages ★★★★☆

Photo of Hong Kong viewed from Victoria Peak, a setting that appears in this novel about a Washington cabal acting in China
Hong Kong today, as seen from Victoria Peak. Image: Britannica

An ambivalent “special relationship”

Charles Cumming, who is British, has an interesting take on his protagonist. “Miles Coolidge was the Yank of your dreams and nightmares: he could be electrifying company; he could be obnoxious and vain. He could be subtle and perceptive; he could be crass and dumb. He was a friend and an enemy, an asset and a problem. He was an American.” And is this what we call the “special relationship?”

Cumming does it again in words he puts in the mouth of MI6 officer Joe Lennox: “I am not anti-American. . . I just despise the current American administration. I despair that [President George W.] Bush has made ordinary, decent people all over the world think twice about what was once, and still could be again, a great country, when what happened on September 11th should have made ordinary, decent people all over the world embrace America as never before. I don’t like it that neo-conservative politicians bully their so-called allies while playing to the worst, racist instincts of their own bewildered electorate.” And, although Cumming wrote these words nearly a decade and a half ago, they could even more easily be written today.

A plausible story grounded in reality

Is it all hard to believe? Up to a point, of course. But there is potential aplenty in today’s Xinjiang, where the Chinese Communist government has sent more than one million Muslim Uighurs to “vocational education and training centers” that are, of course, concentration camps. And now, in 2022, we Americans cannot be surprised in the least to learn about “right-wing Washington cabals” with sinister aims since one departed the White House early last year.

About the author

Photo of Charles Cumming, author of this novel about a Washington cabal
Charles Cumming. Image: Jonathan Ring via NPR

Charles Cumming is sometimes referred to as the successor to John le Carré, but I’d like to see him write about a more believable protagonist before I go along with that judgment. However, as I write in my review of Cumming’s The Hidden Man, his “flawed heroes, Alec Milius and Thomas Kell, resemble John Le Carre’s George Smiley more closely than James Bond, and their adversaries are real-world spy agencies rather than such fantasies as Spectre. Cumming’s work doesn’t attain the literary heights of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but few writers working today in the genre have mastered the craft as well as he. (Joseph Kanon and Olen Steinhauer are among the few I’ve read recently.)”

For further reading

This is just one of Charles Cumming’s first-rate spy thrillers.

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