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The Spanish Game - Charles Cumming

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Author: Charles Cumming / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 29 March 2012 / Genre: Crime & Thriller / Subcategory: Espionage & Spy Thriller / Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers / Title: The Spanish Game / ISBN 13: 9780007416936 / ISBN 10: 0007416936

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      27.12.2011 18:17
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      A pleasant surprise and very different from the usual spy novel

      The Spanish Game is one of those books which had been lying around on my bookshelf waiting to be read for a good few years. It was one I picked up cheap somewhere because I thought it looked interesting, but then always had other books that I preferred to read ahead of it. When I finally got around to reading it, I was pleasantly surprised with what I found.

      The Spanish Game is a spy story. If that sends you off thinking of Bourne or Bond, then stop. This is more in the mould of the old-style spy tales of Le Carre. Although set in modern day Spain, the plot and style of writing are very reminiscent of the Cold War spy stories that dominated the genre in the 1980s. It contains that same mix of complex plotting, paranoia and secretive behaviour where no-one is able to trust anyone and apparent "friends" constantly betray each other.

      The Spanish Game features Alec Milius, a somewhat mysterious character. We know that Alec used to be a spy for MI5 and MI6, but is now living in exile in Spain following an operation that went badly wrong and led to the death of his ex-girlfriend. Convinced that the British Intelligence Services are looking for him, he lives a paranoid existence, trusting no-one and constantly looking over his shoulder. Unexpectedly, he finds himself drawn back into the maelstrom of the spying game when he comes across a plot involving the thorny issue of Basque separatism in Spain.

      It's hard to do justice to the plot of the Spanish Game with a simple summary like that as it becomes so incredibly complex, particularly later on as the conspiracies and (possible) double crosses really start to pile up. Yet, no matter how complicated the plot became, I never found myself unsure what was going on or struggling to keep up with the myriad of different characters and different agendas.

      This is because Cumming is very adept at story-telling and juggling the needs of a complex storyline with the need to keep the reader interested. New elements and plot developments are skilfully introduced so that their significance is instantly understandable. The reader is immediately able to slot them into the plot and see how everything fits together and the regular introduction of new developments keeps the attention of the reader. It's only once you have finished the book that you appreciate how skilfully Cumming has constructed the story to make it both suitably complicated yet instantly understandable.

      The other stand-out aspect of The Spanish Game is the atmosphere of fear, mistrust and paranoia which is established. This is not a thriller which relies on spectacular fist-fights or car chases for excitement (as are the Bourne and Bond series); instead, it relies on atmosphere. Right from the start, Alec Milius is a deeply suspicious and paranoid individual, trusting no-one and taking great lengths not to draw attention to himself. Initially, such behaviour seems absurd, but as the book progresses and the plot thickens it becomes apparent why he behaves in this way. For Milius and his (former) colleagues, deceit is simply a way of life, an essential survival mechanism where telling the right lie to the right person at the right time can result in extracting the information needed.

      The Spanish Game features very few "set-pieces" and its portrayal of the world of spies is a million miles away from the glamorous settings of Bond. It is dirty, gritty and dangerous; a world where one false move can result in death. That sense of danger pervades the entire book, making for a realistic and compelling read.

      This is helped by the fact that, for the most part, author Charles Cumming has a very readable style. He keeps his language simple, but effective; providing enough background information and descriptions to be convincing, without going overboard and boring the reader.

      One thing I did find slightly annoying was Cumming's insistence on occasionally lapsing into Spanish. I fully understand that this was done for the sake of authenticity, but he didn't always provide a translation. Since I am reasonably adept at languages (although not Spanish), I was usually able to work out what was being said from the context; but if you're not good at languages, you might struggle. True, nothing of significance is said in these brief conversations, but it's a slightly annoying narrative technique that seems designed to show off how jolly clever the author is.

      Another slightly frustrating aspect occurs when Cumming needs to provide background information on the Basque/Spain history. Usually he does this by having the main character pretend he knows nothing, at which point it is explained to him by someone else. This works the first few times it happens, but as soon as you realise how much Milius actually does know, it seems contrived and artificial.

      Of course, it's always difficult finding a convincing way of handing background information to the reader without patronising them or slowing the plot down and in fairness, for the most part Cumming does it well. Like many people, I know relatively little about recent Spanish history, yet never felt as though I was lagging behind because the author does such a good job of conveying the background information.

      At the time I read it, I didn't realise that The Spanish Game is the second book to deal with this character (the first is A Spy by Nature). Although I read the books the wrong way round, this didn't actually matter. Although the first book explains why Milius had to go into exile, this information is not essential to understanding or appreciating this book. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that I actually benefitted from reading them in the wrong order as it surrounded Milius in a greater sense of mystery which benefitted the tense atmosphere of the book.

      I enjoyed The Spanish Game a lot. Spy books like this are not normally my thing, but this one was fascinating, gripping and (in its own way) very exciting. It can be picked up in paperback second hand for a couple of pounds. Alternatively, the Kindle edition can be bought along with the first novel in the series for under £5.

      Basic Information
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      The Spanish Game
      Charles Cumming
      Penguin, 2006
      978-0-141-01783-9

      © Copyright SWSt 2011

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