Novel: The Moroccan Girl by Charles Cumming

It’s interesting that in an era of right-wing ascendance, spy novelists might center their stories on left-wing terrorist organizations—but then, here we are. Like Olen Steinhauer in The Middleman, veteran thriller scribe Charles Cumming imagines the existence of a radical left-wing group in his latest, The Moroccan Girl (2019). The resulting adventure is yet another bracing entertainment.

C.K. “Kit” Carradine is another prototypical Cumming protagonist: an outsider spy who finds himself caught between the mundane and secret worlds. Kit’s a fairly successful spy novelist whose father, long ago, was betrayed by the treachery of Kim Philby. His fringe connection to the world of spies suddenly becomes all too real when a a British intelligence officer named Robert Mantis approaches him on the streets of London. Mantis recruits Kit, who is about to fly to Morocco for a book festival, to carry out minor operational tasks in Casablanca and Marrakech, and to assist in locating a missing woman. Thrilled to add some real-life street cred to his spy novelist bio, Kit agrees to the work. But soon he learns the woman’s identity: Lara Bartok, a leading figure in a worldwide movement of left-wing activism called Resurrection. Resurrection has been carrying out terrorist acts against the right wing’s worst public voices, and Kit’s involvement with the beautiful fugitive quickly turns out to be every bit as complicated and dangerous as one of his own novels.

In that it depicts a spy fiction author crossing over into the secret world, The Moroccan Girl possesses something of a “write what you know” feel, and it may be the novel’s only real drawback—an awkward metafictional element, as one can’t help but picture the author in the leading role. Even so, I went happily along for the ride. This one clicks along nicely with Cumming’s usual mix of intelligent intrigue, tense action, and a conflicted, flawed, earnest protagonist struggling to discern the right moves in a confusing, hall-of-mirrors situation. As in The Middleman, the focus on left-wing political terrorism serves as a backwards opportunity to react to the insanity of the Trump/Brexit era; Cumming’s effort to give voice to “zeitgeist despair” is more eloquent than Steinhauer’s. Conjuring memories of The Third Man and Casablanca, this is one of Cumming’s more cinematic-feeling books, getting mileage out of its vivid North African setting and romantic subplot. All in all, it’s another solid outing from one of the field’s best.

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