Listening Through Box 88

Coming off the dark intensity of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, I’m treating myself to the simple pleasures of a very John le Carré-esque spy story, the novel Box 88 by Charles Cumming. It’s the most Carré thing I’ve read by a contemporary writer. It’s not an arch character study like Mick Herron. It’s not as baroquely plotted a puzzle as Olen Steinhauer. It does, however, emphasize elements we expected from Carré: elite private schools, class warfare as cold war, a distant parent (here a demanding, widowed mother in place of Carré’s usual flamboyant, dissolute father), and personal moments that a lesser writer couldn’t pull off — and that readers of those writers likely wouldn’t tolerate. And like any solid teller of spy stories must be, Cumming is an excellent listener. There is an extended sequence about a third of the way through Box 88 when two MI5 agents are tailing a suspect primarily by listening to what’s happening with the suspect thanks to hidden microphones. We don’t just hear what they hear. Cumming helps us hear as they hear — the straining, the confusion, the headache-inducing consideration of possible inferences.

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