Novel: Box 88 by Charles Cumming

May 30, 2022

The always reliable Charles Cumming’s new series begins with Box 88 (2020), a time-jumping spy thriller about a clandestine transatlantic intelligence organization. Lachlan Kite is an agent of the eponymous group, which is comprised of former British and American spies now functioning under the radar of their governments. When Kite’s wealthy childhood friend Xavier Bonnard dies, he’s dragged back into his past. His attendance at the funeral culminates in his abduction by Iranian agents, who intend to interrogate him about the long-ago operation that launched his career. Cara Jannaway, a young MI-5 agent detailed to an investigation of Kite, is on the scene when he goes missing and suddenly finds herself instrumental in effecting his rescue. Meanwhile, Kite – while attempting to uncover the hidden motives of his captors – reflects on the mission that landed him in this predicament. Thirty years earlier, when Kite was just a teenager, he was recruited by Box 88 to serve as their eyes and ears during a Bonnard family vacation in France. Now that ill-fated operation, which still haunts him, has resurfaced to threaten him, his family, and the entire organization.

Box 88 is essentially an extended origin story – both for Lachlan Kite, a fairly familiar Cummings agent-hero, and for Box 88, something of a post-national intelligence outfit marching to the beat of its own drum. It’s a lengthy, structurally unpredictable book that frames its detailed historical flashback with a somewhat thinner present-day ticking clock, bouncing from 2020 to 1989 and back again. As usual with Cumming, the prose is accessible and effortlessly read. The historical sections are particularly immersive, with Kite’s youthful personality ringing true against an authentic late-eighties/early-nineties backdrop. While the present-day Kite storyline is less interesting, it’s also a nice showcase for Jannaway, who looks to be an important figure in the series moving forward. Cumming is consistently one of the more engaging and enjoyable spy novelists working today, and Box 88 is another excellent effort, setting a promising stage for further adventures.