Fiction, Spies

Novel: The Spanish Game by Charles Cumming

June 12, 2010

In The Spanish Game (2006), Charles Cumming returns to the viewpoint of Alec Milius, who debuted in Cumming’s first novel A Spy By Nature. Several years have passed and Milius, retired (with mixed feelings) from the intelligence world, has gone to ground in Madrid. Although Milius is no longer active, he still practices countersurveillance tradecraft and maintains a low profile — enlivening his dull bank job with a clandestine affair with his boss’ wife, but otherwise leading a lonely expatriate existence. He assumes that enemies and “friends” alike from the intelligence world he left behind, if they ever found him, would make his life hell. This reads like paranoia to his old friend Saul, whose visit proves to be an omen, for spying is about to enter back into Milius’ life. When his boss sends him into the Basque region of Spain to interview people about its suitability for investment, Milius befriends a Basque nationalist named Mikel Arenaza, whose ties with the terrorist ETA are behind him. Arenaza’s disappearance puts Milius onto the scent of a government conspiracy, and — quite unable to resist — he begins investigating on his own, ultimately putting himself in the crosshairs of various secret influences in the war on terror.

The Spanish Game is a convoluted, twisty affair, thanks largely to Milius, a truly unique character in spy lore — he’s a man at the mercy of his very nature, a pathological liar with delusions of grandeur, constantly evaluating his own state of mind and frequently getting it wrong (often, it seems, deliberately). He lives for the adventure of spying, even as it tears his life apart, and his skills at the nitty-gritty of the business often get in the way of his view of the big picture. The early sections of the book are slower, as Cumming refamiliarizes us with Milius’ unreliable narration and lays the groundwork for the Basque separatist issues that are central to the novel’s plot. It’s time well spent in both cases, particularly the latter, as this is unique, rarely explored territory in the genre (in my experience, anyway). The plot accelerates later, though, as Milius’ meddling quickly makes him a person of interest to terrorists, conspirators, and intelligence services, putting him in position to work his deceptive nature on multiple targets. It definitely makes for a brisk, entertaining read.

I think, in the end, I preferred Cumming’s earlier novels a little bit more to this one.  The Spanish Game’s incredibly dense plot feels a bit too contrived, so that it lacks the ring of authenticity the earlier books possessed. The characters aren’t quite as distinctive (a particular strength of A Spy By Nature). And while Milius’ unreliable narration keeps the reader’s head spinning as to what’s actually going on, his ultimate fate is not terribly surprising (although the denouement is a nice subversion of expectation). Reservations aside, though, I quite enjoyed the read, and I expect fans of Cumming’s other work will find plenty to like in this one.  Looking forward to more.

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