A jumble of events across time and continents kicks off the new spy thriller “A Foreign Country,” by the Scottish writer Charles Cumming. Amelia, a young au pair, disappears in Tunisia in 1978, leaving behind a lovelorn seducer. Years later, an elderly French couple are murdered in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Soon after, a young man is abducted from a dark Paris street in a 20-second maneuver “as easy as lighting a cigarette.” And Amelia, now the new head of MI6, the British intelligence service, has gone missing during a sudden trip to the South of France.
It is up to Thomas Kell, a spy disgraced in a torture scandal after 9/11, to track down the chief. “Find her and we can bring you in from the cold,” a former colleague tells him.
If the phrase seems a sly tribute to John le Carré, well, it’s not the only one. Shreds and patches from the master show up throughout, as in a subplot about a long-lost child, which echoes one from “Smiley’s People.” Or maybe I’ve been reading too many spy novels. They train you to see connections, after all, even ones that may not be there.
“A Foreign Country” is silkily written, and more cool than hot. Cumming, whose earlier novels include the enthusiastically received “Trinity Six,” describes exotic locales with detail and affection, and is relatively sparing in his use of bang-bang, at least until a big, gory Hollywood-ready finish.
While this novel nods to the past, it’s rooted firmly in the mess of our present. “A Foreign Country” describes today’s wars and morally ambiguous tactics — including “passive rendition” and “outsourced torture” — with an acerbity that might make le Carré proud. Cumming is no knee-jerk liberal, and Kell, his chosen speechifier, argues that “too many people on the left” have blinded themselves to the high stakes, “interested solely in demonstrating their own good taste, their own unimpeachable moral conduct, at the expense of the very people who were striving to keep them safe in their beds.”
The psychic wounds of British complicity in the mistreatment of terror suspects are still fresh. But some things never change in the world of British spy novels. The Americans are violent blunderers. The French are so very wicked. And the British are sad but noble holdovers from a better time, tarnished by their association with icky us.
Geopolitics aside, this is a novel about identity. We change: seeing “King Lear” as a college student is interesting, but seeing it years later with your own child is shattering. Across our experiences and transformations, however, the self runs through it all like a bright thread. Spies like Amelia and Kell, Cumming tells us, lose that thread. In the middle of a sleepless night, Kell reflects that “his entire personality had grown out of a talent for the clandestine; he could not remember who he had been before the tap on the shoulder at 20.” By the end of the novel Kell has gotten not just a chance to get his old job back, but a shot at redemption as well. Given a ticking clock, a bad man and a question to answer, Kell must show that he can act effectively without trashing those principles he keeps talking about. Underneath all the jets and ferries, the heroic alcohol consumption, the cellphone SIM cards and computer hacking that make a spy thriller move, the real story in “A Foreign Country” is the quest to reclaim our better selves, the people we once thought we might be.