Fiction, Spies

Novel: Typhoon by Charles Cumming

June 19, 2011

So far I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Charles Cumming, especially his debut novel A Spy By Nature, but I think Typhoon (2008) catapults him to a new level.  A deftly executed mix of intrigue, adventure, romance, and history, this is his most accomplished novel to date.

Typhoon’s hero is Joe Lennox, an idealistic young SIS agent posted to Hong Kong shortly before the British handover of their long-time colony back to the Chinese government in the late 1990s.  When a Chinese professor is picked up by a British military watch, Lennox is called in to interview him as a “walk-in,” where he learns of horrific human rights atrocities being committed against the Uighur population in the remote Chinese province of Xinjiang.  Shortly after the first interview, however, Lennox is frozen out; the professor disappears, removed by his SIS superiors and his CIA counterpart Miles Coolidge.  Coolidge, a brazen, ambitious man of many appetites, is a close friend of Lennox, who also conceals multiple hidden agendas.  Among these is his selfish pursuit of Lennox’s alluring girlfriend Isabella Aubert, but even more devious is Coolidge’s participation in a covert black op to destabilize the region that Lennox gradually uncovers and spearheads an effort to stop.

Typhoon is confident, briskly paced, exciting stuff, rich with fascinating historical detail, believable characters, and gripping political situations.  As ever, Cumming sets his compelling human story against a broad canvas of momentous international affairs, and never has he been more successful.  I almost took issue with the gutsy “first-person omniscient” POV, which is pretty unique.  Although the prose ricochets through viewpoints, it is theoretically being conveyed by a loosely involved journalist named Will Lasker, who blends first-person accounts of his participation in the events with “extrapolations” of what the principal characters experienced, supported by occasional “primary source” excerpts (letters, emails, and journal entries).  At first it comes across like unrealistic insight into other people’s heads, but ultimately Cumming is so sure-handed with his material that I came to embrace the technique, which adds a distinctive mystique to the tale, along with tantalizing and suspenseful foreshadowing.

In the end, this is definitely my favorite Cumming novel so far, and easily one of the most enjoyable spy novels I’ve ever read — an addictive combination of intelligent intrigue and cinematic thriller action.  Highly recommended.

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