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One the eve of his thirty-sixth birthday,CK (Kit) Carradine, a reasonably successful spy novelist, is approached by a stranger in the street. The man, who identifies himself as Robert Mantis, compliments Kit on his mastery of spycraft and admits to being a spook himself. Working for whom? He evades the question. Why shouldn't he and Kit get together sometime?
Kit is intrigued. His father had worked for British Intelligence when he was young and his tales had inspired his son to enter that secretive world, at least in fiction. But Kit is also bored and restless. Novel-writing, he is discovering, may seem a liberation but it is beginning to resemble a gilded cage. So when Mantis (if that's his name) recruits Kit for a brief job in Marrakech, he hesitates much less than perhaps he should have. The job basically entails delivering some cash and documents to an asset in Casablanca, but primarily attempting to find a woman the Service is anxious to contact and whom they believe might turn up at the literary festival Kit is scheduled to attend. So far, all classic undercover tasks that have been handed over to amateur spies since the beginning of the genre.
But THE MOROCCAN GIRL is far from a classic spy story. On the contrary, it is, despite its conventionally exotic settings (Morocco, Cádiz), very up to date indeed. The book was published last year in Britain as THE MAN BETWEEN, which, though less evocative a title than the US version, is perhaps more revealing. The woman he is supposed to find, Lara Bartok, is neither Moroccan nor a girl, but a strong, grown woman connected to a group calling itself Resurrection that specializes in attacks on leading right-wing public figures. Founded by one Ivan Simakov, now dead in a bomb blast, with whom Lara was both politically and personally involved, it began with non-violent protest actions specializing in the public humiliation of far-right personalities but rapidly degenerated into a collection of decentralized groups of activists who kidnap, murder, and worse. Lara maintains that she fell out with Ivan as he succumbed to the lure of violence and that ever since, "they" have been after her.
Whatever underhanded tricks or dubious ploys yesterday's fictional spies engaged in in the course of the day, one thing was always very clear. There were two sides to the shadow war and they were distinct and morally opposed. Agents were also in the service of particular nations, usually their own. Things are much more shifty in THE MOROCCAN GIRL. Kit is never absolutely sure until the very end of the book whether he is being played or employed and who exactly is doing the playing. Nor does he know whether Lara, whom he falls for almost on sight, is what she says she is or a Resurrection terrorist. He is literally a man between - attached to a fictional and romantic past of espionage but alive and functioning in a present that has little room for glamourous individual acts of daring.
Lara's code name is LAZLO, and everyone who has ever seen (and fallen for) the film Casablanca will instantly recognize the name of Ilsa's heroic boyfriend, the Resistance hero whom Rick nobly insists that Ilsa accompany into freedom while he remains behind to fight the Nazis. The gender reversal here is obvious but intriguing. Throughout their brief encounter, Lara is streets ahead of Kit the whole way. In fact, she's well ahead of the reader who, like Kit, cannot quite decide just what she's up to. She certainly is no Ilsa, who appears hopelessly dim at the end of the film, when Rick is forced to inform her that the Nazis are very bad and defeating them far outweighs any personal desires either of them may have. "Someday," he says," you'll understand that," as though a year or so of ducking the Gestapo has taught Ilsa nothing at all. Ilsa is barred from the fight on the grounds of her sex, but Kit will not be. What might exempt him is what Lara terms a "streak in his personality, a need to be the knight in shining armour. I've noticed that a lot of English men have this."
Over the course of some eight previous novels exploring the world of the contemporary spy, Cumming has developed a new sort of character in the role. In the third book in the series that stars Thomas Kell, for example, the retired spy looks back on his career with neither satisfaction nor longing. Yet he springs back into action for personal, not national, political reasons when the occasion arises. The shift from the ideological to the private is telling. When it comes to Kit Carradine (the babyish first name is a hint), Cumming turns to the opening acts of a spying career in which the naive protagonist enters a world he is psychologically unprepared to understand. As a novelist and as a fond son, Kit becomes a spy in order to provide his fictional self with a taste of real, if conventional, romance. He also, like a Boy's Own hero, wishes to serve Queen and Country, or at least the Service as his father tried to do before him.
But times have changed, boundaries have shifted, and very little can be relied upon. If you are never quite certain who is running your show, if you cannot tell if your gorgeous girlfriend is a vicious terrorist or a damsel in distress, it's hard to hang onto the romance of the spy.
A MOROCCAN GIRL has been issued as a standalone, but there is certainly a possibility of further books to come, if Cumming decides on a series. Let's hope he does, for the slippery, shifting world he describes is in many ways less potentially destructive than the our actual world of daggers drawn in the service of absolute certainty that we appear to be stuck with at the moment.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2019
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