“Jesus Only Had 12 and One of Those Was a Double…”

‘Judas 62’ by Charles Cumming

A spy in one of the most dangerous places on Earth…

1993: Student Lachlan Kite is sent to post-Soviet Russia in the guise of a language teacher. In reality, he is there as a spy. Top secret intelligence agency BOX 88 has ordered Kite to extract a chemical weapons scientist before his groundbreaking research falls into the wrong hands. But Kite’s mission soon goes wrong and he is left stranded in a hostile city with a former KGB officer on his trail.

An old enemy looking for revenge…

2020: Now the director of BOX 88 operations in the UK, Kite discovers he has been placed on the ‘JUDAS’ list – a record of enemies of Russia who have been targeted for assassination. Kite’s fight for survival takes him to Dubai, where he must confront the Russian secret state head on… (Synopsis courtesy of Harper Collins)

For some time, Charles Cumming has been one of the best working spy writer’s today. Alongside Simon Conway and Mick Herron, he has been producing first-rate work in novels such as Typhoon, Trinity Six and his Thomas Kell trilogy (‘A Foreign Country’, ‘A Colder War’ and ‘A Divided Spy’)

It has always struck me as unfair for these writers to be consistently referenced alongside John Le Carre – a writer whom I hold in the highest regard. Whilst Cumming has been one of our best for 20 years, Le Carre was obviously a genre defining author whose very language of espionage has entered their trade. Now THAT is a legacy.

Last year’s ‘Box 88’ was a delight. It was spy ficiton as Proust, Cumming luxuriating in the school days of his lead character and (apparently) mining his own biography to weave a tapestry of a period as evocatively rendered as a tea soaked madeleine. Ironically, it was also the novel which arguably brought Cumming closest to Le Carre territory.

‘Box 88’, intercutting as it did Lachlan Kite’s present day problems as a team of skilled operatives invade and abduct his wife, with his recruitment into the shadowy organisation Box, has echoes of Le Carre’s ‘A Perfect Spy’. (‘A Perfect Spy’ is, lest anyone forget, the work labelled by no less an authority than Phillip Roth as, “the best English novel since the war” so this is far from a criticism.  

As much as I enjoyed ‘Box 88’, the structure was – if anything – the biggest issue with it. It was fairly obviously the beginning of a series and this meant that neither the story set in the 1980s nor that of the contemporary events really had an opportunity to ratchet up the tension. Kite obviously survived in the flashback, he was almost certain to survive in the present too.

‘Judas 62’ is obviously going to suffer from the same thing. But, here, Cumming avoids the trap by slightly altering the structure. We are reintroduced to Kite as Covid lockdowns are making espionage even more tricky and Box are working as a skeleton crew. Instead of then intercutting the narrative every other chapter, here Cumming chooses to tell one story then the other. Although we know Kite is not going to peg out any time soon, there is a greater tension and some fantastically palm-sweat inducing descriptions of his operation and the harrowing fall out which follows.

Few people can write such convincing action and conjure a world so effectively as Cumming. His ability to render the mundane – WhatsApp conversations, a cricket match –  and contrast with the high stakes of the missions of his characters.

There are few writers as adept at creating characters you care about and tension on a minute by minute basis as Cummings and, in Lachlan Kite, he has a flawed hero of self awareness and a lorry load of festering regrets.

‘Judas 62’ is a triumph of a novel and I look forward to the third instalment as soon as I can get my hands on it. This is vintage Cummings and I just hope he has ready access to the French patisserie and the old pot of tea if he’s going to use any more of remembrance of things past.

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Charles Cumming

Charles Cumming was born in Scotland in 1971. He was educated at Eton and graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1994 with First Class Honours in English Literature. The Observer has described him as “the best of the new generation of British spy writers who are taking over where John le Carré and Len Deighton left off”. In the summer of 1995, Charles was approached for recruitment by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). A year later he moved to Montreal where he began working on a novel based on his experiences with MI6. A Spy By Nature was published in the UK in 2001. (Biography courtesy of Harper Collins)