Thomas Kell, the protagonist of Charles Cumming's A Foreign Country, is no James Bond. Forced out of MI6, Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, to protect his superiors from the embarrassment of his allegedly botched last mission, he gets a call when the organization is once again threatened with international scandal. They need his bulldog tenacity for an off-the-books assignment to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Amelia Levene, MI6's incoming (and first female) director. Kell is on the skids: "a forty-two-year-old man, estranged from his forty-three-year-old wife, with a hangover comparable in range and intensity to the reproduction Jackson Pollock hanging on the wall of his temporary bedroom." Nonetheless, he knows only one life--espionage--and so is happy to pack up his spy gear and get back to work.
Cumming, once a candidate for MI6 himself, has written well about the clandestine world of British espionage (most notably in 2011's The Trinity Six). His morally complex, "superannuated spook" Kell recruits "two borderline geriatric retreads who hadn't been in the game since the fall of the Berlin Wall" and leads them through the hot and shadowy streets of Tunis and Marseilles. They have to work difficult tag-team surveillance operations, hopping trains between France and England, as the investigation uncovers a shady French scheme to discredit the British and regain influence in North Africa. Of course, nothing and no one are as they seem. Cumming's finely developed characters and intricately tangled plot make for an entertaining return to a world that le Carré and Fleming left years ago. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.