Every now and then a book comes my way which gets under my skin – and I instantly feel a blog coming on. I love historical novels on the whole, and of course, they are in vogue – not only do they transport, but they can (should?) also educate. But from the novelist’s point of view, they provide great opportunities for invention and speculation since the periods they choose to inhabit are the preserve of only an educated few. Who’s to know where fact ends and fiction begins?

But to take very recent history, especially very public recent history, and then weave a credible narrative through it, takes some doing. Cumming has already proved his worth in this respect in previous novels. But this book, set first in 1997 handover-Hong Kong and then in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, ratchets up his ambitions. And the results couldn’t be more topical. This is no private or obscure corner of history – it’s a matter of wide public record and even more widespread concern.

Of course, such ambitions could merely lead to a worthy but barely gripping journalistic account. But Cummming is a master of narrative suspense and intrigue. This is truly a page-turner and therefore deserves wide readership. The characters are finely drawn and credible – the relationships and tensions acutely (even excruciatingly) observed: in particular, the triangle between MI6 protagonist Joe, CIA agent Miles and the profoundly sympathetic but tragic Isabella. But we’re also taken on a whirlwind tour of Western expats in China muddling through with contradictory agendas and the seemier corners of Chinese lowlife, populated by wheeler dealers, thugs and (a very few) idealists, each drawn with skillful economy. As ever, however, in common with all great espionage writing, trust is the holy grail – and as ever in such circles it is in short supply.

But this is no airport pot-boiler – far from it. It offers an intelligent entry-point into complex affairs which rarely (if ever) make the headlines, let alone foreign affairs columns.

TYPHOON poses vital questions:

  • Since 9/11, Islamic fundamentalist terrorism has obviously been at the forefront of international politics and diplomacy. But to what extent are groups like Al Qaeda the products of ill-informed, short-termist and ultimately doomed policies of covert American action? TYPHOON traces a similar trajectory – of how separatist Islamic terrorists in China wreak havoc funded by the western operatives.
  • Issues of Chinese human rights abuses abound today – especially because of the Olympics. But to what extent is raising the subject mere hypocrisy? Especially if the British and American do so?
  • What actually IS the role of the British secret service in a post-imperial world, especially when the CIA dwarfs its ‘cousins’ in resources, manpower and reach?
  • Isn’t ALL foreign policy and undercover action only really about OIL FIELDS in the end?

A chilling scene in a brilliant recent film sticks in my mind. In Syriana (George Clooney et al), a small team of frankly inept and profoundly ignorant, meddling CIA agents meets in a cocooned, air-conditioned office in Langley to plot the future of the Middle East – with absolutely disastrous consequences. TYPHOON describes a not dissimilar meeting, in Washington DC. When will we ever learn?

But don’t be put off by such intellectualizing! This is a cracking read – and in a work of fiction, that in the end is the acid test. To be stimulated by such vital questions on top of that is just a fantastic bonus.

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