Box 88 by Charles Cumming

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

At long, long last, a writer has emerged to contest the place held by John le Carré in the canon of spy literature, who produced the immortal George Smiley series of novels. Charles Cumming has provided a book with the stimulating title Box 88 – an organisation that doesn’t exist with a spy that can’t be caught. It contains all the elements that the old-style traditional spy novels brought us.

The book begins in 1988 with the bombing over Lockerbie of Pan Am 103 where 203 people lost their lives. There is an immediate switch to London in the present day where we are, without delay, introduced to the central character, Lachlan Kite, and to Martha Raine who was to play a small but tantalising role in this particular book, but is more prominent in a following volume. She mentions that a character called Xavier Bonnard has just committed suicide. Thus, we are introduced immediately to the characters who hold the story together.

Everyone is spying on everyone else, some with evil intention. MI5 has heard rumours of the existence of Box 88 and Kite’s involvement with it. Kite is kidnapped and tortured by Iranian Intelligence. The story revolves around a choice Kite has to make: reveal the truth of an action thirty years before or face execution and the rape and murder of his wife.

The ability of the writer to bring out the tortuousness of Kite’s mind, his ability to obfuscate under pressure, to keep his kidnappers out of step is beautifully exposed. Readers may find difficulty in accepting the intellectual stamina of Kite under duress, but Cumming caters for that with an in-depth explanation of his childhood, which was spent in one of the most unforgiving schools in the country. It is here that he learns how to be devious, where he interacts with Martha Raine and is sent upon graduation to France to gather intelligence on an Iranian businessman who Box 88 think is implicated in the Lockerbie bombing.

The setting is minimal. After the elite school and the meeting with a mysterious woman at a funeral, who Kite knows immediately is a fraud, the story revolves around two rooms, one where Kite is imprisoned and the other where his wife is held against her will.

From the opening statements, set in 1988, through the complicated story leading through to its resolution, the pace never lets up. This is a story with a single purpose – to show how man, placed in trying circumstances, might react. Kite is trained for these circumstances and leads his captor into situations they had never thought possible. The book is a triumph of mind over mass, of thought over thuggery.

Cumming places close attention on the relative positions of his characters. Toradi is always the leader of Kite’s captors, Hossein is a superbly trained assassin, yet he is always under Toradi’s control. Eskandarian remains always a mysterious businessman. Like a cockerel in the barn-yard, he is always on display. In the following passage we see this:

‘Me?!’ Eskandarian inflated his chest, squared his shoulders and smiled broadly in a display of mock courage… ‘This is just for show!’ Eskandarian gave another puffed-up, sweeping gesture of omniscience.’ (368).

The little things are not forgotten – the leer on a character’s face, the studied use of hands and fingers, the closeness or otherwise with which characters stand, the simple things such as the way Martha initiates Lachlan into sex.

A magnificent book in its broad coverage of operations in diverse settings and in its focus on fine detail. I loved it.

Box 88

(2020)

By Charles Cumming

HarperCollins

ISBN: 978-0-00-820037-4

$29.99; 496 pp

close

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

Scroll to Top