Quick Review: BOX 88 by Charles Cumming (Harper)

196232-1_BOX 88_HB_REV_ii.inddAn excellent espionage thriller

An organisation that doesn’t exist.

A spy that can’t be caught.

Years ago, a spy was born…

1989: The Cold War will soon be over, but for BOX 88, a top secret spying agency, the espionage game is heating up. Lachlan Kite, recruited from an elite boarding school, is sent to France, tasked with gathering intelligence on an enigmatic Iranian businessman implicated in the Lockerbie bombing. But what Kite uncovers is more terrifying than anyone expected…

Now he faces the deadliest decision of his life…

2020: MI5 hear rumours of BOX 88’s existence and go after Kite – but Iranian intelligence have got to him first. Taken captive and brutally tortured, Kite has a choice: reveal the truth about what happened in France thirty years earlier – or watch his family die.

In a battle unlike anything he has faced before, Kite must use all his skills to stay alive.

Long time readers of CR will know that I am a big fan of Charles Cumming’s spy thrillers. Ever since Typhoon, I’ve eagerly anticipated each new novel from the author. Box 88 was no different, and I’m very happy to report that it lived up to my high expectations. Really enjoyed this.

Kite’s story is told from two perspectives: that of the older, experienced operative, decades into his career as a spy; and that of Kite as an 18 year old, on his first mission. I thought the juxtaposition of the spy “origin story” on the one hand, and the supremely talented operative on the other worked extremely well, and over the course of the novel we get a pretty great portrait of Kite, his work, and his evolution as a person and spy.

The events of that first operation have finally caught up with him, and he must confront not only his actions for BOX 88, but also what his actions meant for his friends and family. The novel therefore has a blend of espionage and coming-of-age fiction at times that works very well. Cumming keeps us in the dark and guessing for most of the novel, adding a few excellent red herrings here and there. It makes for a gripping read with plenty of revelations that will keep you reading well into the night. (I stayed up very late to finish it.)

As someone who grew up unhappy (and not belonging) at a British boarding school, there were a lot of amusing, sometimes uncomfortably reminiscent, flashback details and moments when I felt sympathy for Kite — Cumming critiques the elite school system brilliantly, highlighting its inequities and bizarre Darwinian elements.

The author includes many great details of “current” events during the flashback chapters — many of them I recall hearing in the news at the time, but only later learning more about them — giving extra depth to the story. The novel is filled with little details that are either very telling or were such touchstones in the UK at the time. It’s not just the events, though: Cumming is able to bring each of the settings to life brilliantly, without over-describing or spoon-feeding the reader. Whether the story is taking place at an expensive home in France in the 1980s, or a remote hotel in Scotland, or in contemporary London, each scene is excellently crafted and staged. His characters, too, are realistic and engaging.

An excellent update on the classic espionage genre, I very much enjoyed this. If you are in any way a fan of spy fiction, then I would absolutely recommend you read Box 88. I’d also just recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a gripping read. It reaffirms Cumming’s place as one of my favourite authors, and is a must read. I can’t wait for his next novel!

*

Charles Cumming’s Box 88 is due to be published by Harper Collins in the UK, on October 1st, 2020. (At the time of writing, there was no information that I could find related to a US publisher, but Cumming’s other recent novels have been published by St. Martin’s Press in North America.)

Also on CR: Interview/Guest Post with Charles Cumming (2014); Reviews of Typhoon, The Trinity Six, A Foreign Country, A Colder War, and The Man Between

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter
Review copy received via NetGalley

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