Leningrad in the 1950s, setting of ‘City of Ghosts’
Leningrad in the 1950s, setting of ‘City of Ghosts’ © Getty Images

The first rule of running a successful surveillance operation is don’t get noticed. So when MI5, the domestic British security service, sends Cara, an attractive 20-something, to take a discreet look at Lachlan Kite at a society funeral in London, Kite’s radar is soon pinging.

Kite is an operative for Box 88, (HarperCollins, £14.99) an elite, super-secretive British mini-spy agency in Charles Cumming’s new thriller. MI5 are on the trail of Box 88, determined to know more. The second rule of surveillance is if the plan is to make contact with the target — as Cara does with Kite — make sure your back story is thoroughly rehearsed and watertight. Hers is not. Kite is quickly on high alert, but Cara is not his problem.

The Iranians too have Kite in their sights. Fariba, suave, charming and also at the funeral, has his own back story. He claims to be a friend of the deceased and an alumnus of Alford — Kite’s old school. By the time Kite realises that Fariba’s story is full of holes, it is too late — he is in Fariba’s car, and he is soon drugged, kidnapped and imprisoned.

Weaving back and forth between the late 1980s, when Kite was recruited to Box 88, and the present day, Cumming delivers an ambitious coming-of-age story combined with an enthralling spy thriller. Strong characterisation, a well-engineered structure, a rich back story and solid tradecraft — Cumming once dallied with MI6 himself — mean the pages virtually turn themselves. Cumming is especially strong on how the events of decades ago still shape our world today, especially among the shadows.

There are some minor niggles. Life at Alford, an elite private school with a remarkable resemblance to Eton, Cumming’s own alma mater, is densely chronicled, sometimes with too much detail. A Serb helping the Iranians is called Zoltan, but Zoltan is a Hungarian name. Cara’s colleagues predictably bitch and moan. These aside, Cumming has more than served his apprenticeship and is now at the pinnacle of British espionage writers.

In City of Ghosts (Welbeck, £8.99) Revol Rossel is a cop in Leningrad in 1951. These are dangerous times, perhaps most of all for those in uniform. The city is still haunted by the wartime siege and the memories of starvation. Stalin’s terror is resurgent and anyone in a position of authority is suspect. When five frozen and mutilated corpses — one of them a state security officer — are found neatly arranged on railway lines, Revol knows that his life too will soon be in peril.

City of Ghosts is an innovative co-production — Ben Creed is a pseudonym for Barney Thompson, a former journalist at the Financial Times, and Chris Rickaby, a TV screen writer. There are no seams showing here. The writing is smooth and fluent, the visuals evocative and the pacing rises and falls in good time. There are echoes of course of Gorky Park, the classic late cold war Moscow-based thriller by Martin Cruz Smith, which also features mutilated corpses and droll conversations with pathologists.

Rossel is a worthy successor to Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko. Thompson once studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory and deftly deploys that musical knowledge to bring an extra layer to this fine and often moving thriller. Leningrad (as the city was then called) is marvellously portrayed: the grey, ice-bound canals, the once beautiful buildings ravaged by war, the steam-filled communal kitchens where babushkas non-stop cook, as if to make up for the privations of the siege.

Wartime Lisbon is an underused setting for spy fiction. The capital of neutral Portugal was awash with intrigue and double-dealing and operatives warily watching each other. In Mara Timon’s City of Spies (Zaffre, £8.99), Elizabeth de Mornay is an agent for Britain’s Special Operations Executive, posing as Solange Verin, a rich French widow of flexible political allegiance.

A German spy ring is targeting British ships and she needs to get inside. De Mornay is brave and engaging, and Timon deploys her skilfully through Lisbon’s grand villas, smoky casinos and high society social life, bringing the wartime city vividly to life. Timon could usefully develop more of a sense of menace — the book is written in the first person and is sometimes too brisk and chatty. But overall, it makes a very promising debut.

Finally, it’s been heartening to see, alongside the rise of the ebook, a renaissance in high-quality artisan publishing. Lockdown means we are increasingly taking our visual pleasures at home and that does not always mean on screen. A luxurious new edition of Mario Puzo’s classic The Godfather (Folio Society, £79.95) features an introduction by thriller writer Sam Bourne (aka journalist Jonathan Freedland) and evocative, often chilling, full-colour illustrations by Robert Carter. The mafia, as well as the security services, like to keep their eyes open.

Adam LeBor is the author of ‘The Reykjavik Assignment’

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