Given my love of morally ambiguous older women in positions of power (see my three-month long biography binge after I saw The Iron Lady), it was probably inevitable that I was going to enjoy Skyfall, James Bond’s latest outing. Judi Dench’s M, with her acerbic pragmatism and reluctant fondness for her most troublesome agent, has been one of my favourite spymasters since she called Pierce Brosnan a sexist dinosaur in Goldeneye and it was good to see her out in the field one last time.
It also reignited the love of spy novels that saw me devour everything Le Carre ever wrote during my teenage years, whilst simultaneously dressing like Emma Peel from The Avengers. Given that Le Carre has been off the boil for years, and former MI5 boss Stella Rimington’s initially promising Liz Carlyle went down the predictable route of falling for her dull superior and being the least interesting person in the books, I was in the market for a well-written spy thriller with strong female characters. Enter Charles Cumming, who manages to both share the surname of the first Chief of the Security Services who leant his initial to his successors and be appropriately monikered to qualify as 007’s love interest. Although since he was legitimately tapped for MI6 after university, people probably don’t joke about that to his face.
A Foreign Country opens with the mysterious disappearance of a British au pair, Amelia Weldon. Decades later and now Amelia Levene, she has just been named the new Chief of MI6 before she disappears again. Thomas Kell, an ex-officer forced into retirement, is happy to leave the tedium of afternoons in the pub and a crumbling marriage in favour of finding his former colleague.
Cumming captures the entrenched misogyny of the boy’s club without imbuing it with nostalgia for the good old days – like the Brosnan-era Bond films did – or dwelling on it. Sexist jibes are woven into the fabric of speculation around Levene’s disappearance, tokenism is hinted at, and her husband is dismissed as a ‘Denis Thatcher type’. He captures Levene’s internal conflict well – sexual double standards, having to be twice as good to get half the recognition, the constant second-guessing to make sure that pragmatism overcomes the deeply-embedded societal messages ambitious women have to block out
‘Would a man behave like this?’ she asked herself, a reliable maxim of her entire working career. But of course, a man could never have known what it felt like to be in such a situation.
Actually, Cumming seems to have a pretty good idea. In contrast to Liz Carlyle, who always felt like Bridget Jones with a higher Security Clearance, Levene is prickly, ambitious and frequently calculating. Presumably Rimington, who for a while was one of the most powerful women in the country, felt compelled to put an identifiable gloss on her main character, but the result was an everywoman who could have stepped out of the pages of Marie Claire. Although Cumming is at pains to point out that the Secret Intelligence Service has an important role to play in the current political environment, he doesn’t whitewash his characters and they’re all the more real for it. I know more women like his politely cutthroat heroine than I do like Rimington’s, whose idea of stepping out of line is wearing a fuschia scarf with her bland grey suit.
Less convincing is hacker Elsa, a pseudo-Lisbeth Salander who inexplicably falls for Kell, overlooking his emotional constipation to focus on…what exactly, I wasn’t sure. After decades of blending into the background, he lacks the charisma of shambling renegade Rebus, probably his closest fictional counterpart, and whilst he’s an engaging protagonist I’m not sure I’d sleep with him.
Kell himself is a palimpsest, whose cover stories are frequently more fleshed out than he is, and his ability to slough off one persona and put on another hides the fact that beneath the subterfuge and deception there’s not much there. Still, Cumming has plenty to build on if he wants to bring Kell back in from the cold a second time. His ambiguous relationship with Levene, the marriage he can’t quite let go of but can’t revive either, and his longing to abandon retirement and return to the Service all pave the way for future instalments that I look forward to reading.
Edited to add: The lovely team at Killer Reads have let me know that Kell will be back in 2014 in A Colder War.