An old-school espionage adventure, set in the recent past in Hong Kong, Typhoon explores that pivotal moment when one of the last outposts of England’s old empire faded from Britain’s history and into China’s future.
Cumming has an unfussy writing style which at times borders on the basic. There are a couple of segments in the opening chapters which lean heavily (…lazily…) on genre conventions, where clichés replace creativity. The characters feel entirely familiar: a blustering bully of an American who is far smarter than he sounds and who asserts the value of his own country by belittling the culture of others. An intelligent but naïve Englishman, not long out of Oxbridge. An exotic European beauty. Hidebound spy-masters back at London, who feel like they’re from George Smiley’s generation. Style seldom gets between the reader and the narrative – this is plain speaking, where the plot takes precedence over the manner of its presentation.
But my, what a plot. For all that it is plainly told, this is a rip-snorting story. It pits the old enemies (the British and the Americans, of course: before you even consider taking on the rest of the world, first defeat your team-mate) in the cold-blooded conflicts of old-school spycraft. The wily, experienced CIA man undermines and out-manoeuvres the well-mannered, rising star of MI6. Battle is joined on both the professional front and at a deeply personal level. There are multiple betrayals – but are these entirely off-piste, unauthorised and deniable, or simply another campaign in the eternal great game?
The author describes the fevered atmosphere of rising urban China in great depth, successfully luring the reader into the booze-binging, sex-addicted lifestyle of the western businessman making capitalist hay. The bad blood between the two protagonists provides a personal hook to a much bigger picture – the oppression of the Uighur minority, the destabilisation of a region of China rich in oil resources, the collusion of global corporations; acts of insurgency deliberately instigated by one sovereign nation against another…
It turns out that Typhoon was written several years ago, which probably explains why the writing and characterisation feel less mature than in Cumming’s more recent spy series. Although it doesn’t rank alongside Le Carre (few books do: that’s an intensely over-used phrase of book blurb) it reveals an absorbing, authentic-feeling scenario which spans the decade at the turn of the century and delivers dozens of intriguing insights into the modern relationship between China and America… while perhaps accurately indicating Britain’s dwindling role on the world stage. As such, its few flaws are easily forgiven.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Typhoon by Charles Cumming is available in all formats