I’m reviewing both of these books together because I read them back to back, and because I think the merits and weaknesses I felt applied to both books. Both of these titles had been on my wishlist for quite some time after being recommended to me by Amazon, and I finally snagged both of them to read on the iPad while we were in Europe over the holidays. The themes seemed interesting and they were both set overseas: Typhoon in Hong Kong / China and The Spanish Game in Madrid.
I read both of these books after Tom Clancy’s latest, and in contrast to that disappointment Charles Cumming does a relatively great job with character development, setting the scene, and with the dialog of his characters. Overall, I enjoyed these books. Cumming is billed by his publisher as the next John Le Carre who I’ve never read (but now have on the reading list) and while I can’t speak to that comparison yet, I’d say that he is definitely in the category of “enjoyable read.” Both books are set in cultures that were obviously very well researched and visited by the author. I’ve read very few spy related or thriller style books that deal almost exclusively in a foreign setting to the point where it becomes believable, and to his credit, Charles Cumming immerses the reader in the surroundings. His use of street names, location names, food descriptions, smells, and general cultural accuracy are admirable and only at times a little overwhelming. He could definitely have included some maps, particularly for Shanghai and Hong Kong, but the story in general didn’t suffer much for lack of supporting material. All in all, he managed to distill two complex cultures down into an authentic description, a task that other authors seem to really struggle with or at least willfully gloss over.
My main criticism of these books was that both plots generally hung on very subtle motivations and plot points, not all of which were entirely believable. While this sounds bad when I write it, it probably makes for a much more believable or gritty book, and I’m fairly sure that Cumming is out for a more realistic story with great dialog. There’s not a lot of action in these books, although when there is in The Spanish Game he does a masterful job of really helping the reader experience what the character is going through. The author certainly spent considerable time setting up, rewriting, and investing in polishing the dialog in these books – it’s where his strength is and its where most of the action takes place. These aren’t tactical thrillers for armchair storm troopers. Supposedly, the author was approached about being an agent in MI6 and regardless if that is true, most of the spy craft feels very believable, at least to my untrained eye. I was annoyed that the only adjective that seems to be used to describe drinking alcohol is “sinking the drink” and in both books there is a LOT of drinking, so it got old pretty fast. I didn’t feel particularly attached to the character in Typhoon but The Spanish Game did a great job investing me in the character.
Typhoon had closure at the ending, The Spanish Game did not but I think this point and the previous issue with character attachment were functions of Typhoon being a one-off story and The Spanish Game being a continuation. The bottom line – if you enjoy books about spies and enjoy feeling immersed in a foreign culture, these books are for you. Less action than Clancy, more believable than Grisham, great dialog, and a breath of fresh air are what you can expect even if the plots leave a little to be desired.