Novel: JUDAS 62 by Charles Cumming

Charles Cumming has been a consistent, capable practitioner of spy fiction for the full length of his career, but JUDAS 62 (2021) was a miss for me. Despite the usual effortless flow of prose and confident plotting, this second entry in the Lachlan Kite series—which, like the first, encompasses multiple timelines—falls down due to its weakest link: Kite himself.

A diabolical assassination on American soil is the incident that sets BOX 88—an international, independent organization of intelligence professionals—into action this time. The victim, a Russian scientist who fled to the west shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, puts Lachlan Kite, Cara Jannaway, and their colleagues on the trail the JUDAS operation: a Russian hit list of defected Soviet biological weapons experts upon whom the FSB is still working to exact revenge, these many decades later. This murderous initiative sets Kite to recalling his second mission as a young BOX 88 recruit. At the tender age of twenty-two, Kite was sent to the Russian city of Voronezh to facilitate the exfiltration of Yuri Aranov, another scientist desperate to flee the sinister eyes of a nascent Russian kleptostate. Kite’s long-ago undercover assignment in Russia was fraught with danger as well as personal strife, but contained within it the seeds of a BOX 88 counteroffensive to cut off the JUDAS operation at the knees—thirty years later, at the height of the COVID pandemic.

BOX 88 succeeded on the strength of the period detail of its flashbacks and a promising conceptual set-up: the idea of a stateless intelligence service working to battle the complex corruption of a chaotic twenty-first century world. Unfortunately, despite a robust page-count, JUDAS 62 doesn’t build much on that foundation. The extended flashback that forms the bulk of the book builds an interesting world for Kite to move through—a newly post-Soviet Russia, still treacherous but in new ways. But Kite himself, whose youthful naivety and enthusiasm gave BOX 88 much of its character, grows insufferable here in this second chapter of his origin story. Posh, entitled, and selfish, he spends an inordinate percentage of the Voronezh mission chasing (and objectifying) women—enough to render him both unsympathetic and unconvincing as an effective agent. It doesn’t help that the whole exfiltration flashback lacks suspense, since we know the outcome. The contemporary follow-up operation in Dubai is more interesting, and gives Cara Jannaway more welcome screen time, but by then the book had exhausted my good will. Ultimately, Cumming’s usual mix of engaging readability and craft pulled me through , and the home stretch has it moments, especially a monologue from Kite about the need for BOX 88 that is both topical and convincing. I just wish the series to this point had done more to focus on that conceptual foundation—preferably at the expense of Kite’s immature, libidinous self interest.

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