Book Review

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Judas 62, by Charles Cumming

From the strapline on the front cover of this book—“He thought the mission was over. Now Moscow has him in their [sic] sights.”—and the photo of a Lada with an obviously eastern European, possibly Russian licence plate, the reader might be tempted to assume that the 62 in the book’s title refers to the year in which the story is set. Not so: the Judas referenced is a ‘hit list’, of Russian intelligence officers, military personnel and scientists living in the West who had been targeted by Moscow for reprisal assassinations, as in the case of the real life victims Skripal & Litvinenko, to name but two. The impression is given that the author, whose name is vaguely familiar [but I am not familiar with any of his other work] knows of what he writes: in his very brief biography at the front of the book, we are tantalised with the information that “Shortly after university, he was approached for recruitment by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), an experience that inspired his first novel, A Spy by Nature.” So is it safe to assume that he was recruited? Presumably, he could tell us, but then he’d have to kill us…… not easy, if he is anticipating a numerous readership.

This book is the second in what promises to be some sort of a series [something I seem to be making a habit of: jumping in to a series mid-way, but given the random access nature of public library usage, inevitable], the previous one of which was called BOX88. The significance of this name might have been explained in the eponymous tome, but it isn’t here, other than to impart the information that it is “a top-secret Anglo-American spy agency” which, given the protectionist mentality of both countries when it comes to sharing secret intelligence, does seem slightly implausible, but for the sake of enjoying the story, it is necessary to suspend that disbelief: it is well worth it, however. We are also expected to swallow the fact of a young student, who had not yet graduated from university, being sent into the heart of post-Soviet Russia by BOX88 in the summer of 1993, to exfiltrate a biological weapons scientist, Yuri Aranov, who wanted to defect to the West. That being the case, this story is in three parts: the fairly lengthy narrative of the exfiltration, bookended by events in the present [2020], in which COVID is affecting everything: even the London location of the BOX88 headquarters.

When the protagonist, Lachlan Kite, who is now middle aged, but by now in a senior position in BOX88, finds out that his erstwhile cover name, Peter Galvin, is on the Judas list, assigned the number 62, hence the book’s name, naturally enough, he is concerned; the question is how this could have happened, given that there is an unwritten law in espionage that intelligence agencies do not target each others’ operatives for elimination; but also, Kite is worried for the safety of his erstwhile girlfriend, from whom he is now estranged, but who played a significant part in his covert operation in Russia in 1993. A sting operation is decided upon, to be played out in Dubai, but using better backup facilities than Kite was able to call upon previously. This is a substantial book, of nearly 500 pages, and although the infrastructure of BOX88 is not in the le Carré mould, the plotting & the characters are as believable as he might have used, so this is definitely a book which, for me, easily held my attention all the way through, and the possibility of a further story in the series is implied at the end, so I will certainly look out for another book, be it the forerunner or a sequel; and Cumming has written other series and standalone stories, so I would be happy to find any one of those. The paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-0083-6350-5.

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