A Foreign Country; A Colder War; and A Divided Spy (The Thomas Kell trilogy), by Charles Cumming

Summary: A fine set of twisty thrillers set in the contemporary world of Western espionage operations against Islamist extremists and functionaries of the Russian kleptocracy

Any contemporary spy novel is going to draw comparison with John le Carre. So, if it’s George Smiley you are most familiar with, these are stories from the lower ranks, the roles occupied by the likes of Peter Guillam or Toby Esterhause in the Smiley books.

When we first meet Thomas Kell he is pretty washed up. On indefinite leave due to allegations of torture plaguing him, with his marriage to a habitually unfaithful wife on the rocks. However he is quickly called back into service to track down a friend who has gone missing: a fellow MI6 officer, Amelia, who is on the verge of being appointed head of the service.

The reader is quickly pitched into the minutiae of the trade craft of intelligence operations. Hence it takes a while to get to know the sort of person that Kell is, as operational priorities dominate the characters’ actions and Kell’s assessment of individual colleagues and targets.

In the pauses in the action Kell is often found reading Seamus Heaney, which is always a dependable indicator that someone is a good egg. As the books progress there is more opportunity for rumination on a profession in which treachery is stock in trade, the toll this takes on its practitioners, and the challenges of the contemporary world, particularly the threats from Islamist extremism, a resurgent kleptocracy in Russia, and most troubling, their points of overlap.

But none of this is allowed to get in the way of mounting narrative tension and twisty plotting: the books often end up in completely unexpected places from where they start out. The Kell trilogy are gripping thrillers and across these three books Kell is an engaging protagonist, wounded and conflicted, but striving towards a moral purpose that often eludes him.

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