- Hardcover: 416 pages
- Publisher: St. Martin's Press (October 27, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 031255852X
- ISBN-13: 978-0312558529
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 129 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,413,952 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Typhoon: A Novel Hardcover – October 27, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In the tradition of old-school espionage fiction, Cumming (The Spanish Game) lets character rather than plot carry this compelling thriller. William Lasker, a second-string agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service, takes on the job of writing a book about a rogue CIA plot against the People's Republic of China. The action, which takes place mainly in Hong Kong and Shanghai, focuses on Joe Lennox, an SIS undercover agent in China, and an older CIA veteran, Miles Coolidge. Several months before the turnover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, a defector, Professor Wang Kaixuan, climbs out of the South China Sea and announces he has important secret information. After the professor disappears, Joe slowly learns the defector has become part of Typhoon, a secret CIA plan being run by Miles whose aim is to destabilize China. The conflict between Joe and Miles, both personal and professional, fuels this complex and satisfying novel. (Nov.)
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Charles Cumming. 'Typhoon'.
Spies lie, cheat, steal, and occasionally kill. Yet we ascribe considerable moral stature to them, particularly (but not exclusively) in wartime.
Joe Lennox is recruited by SIS, which used to be MI6 when I was in short pants and reading Buchan. He covers a lot of ground between Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing uncovering and then trying to disable a CIA 'loose cannon' team's plot to exploit western China's Muslim unrest. His friend and nemesis is Miles Coolidge, amoral but realistic as his CIA counterpart. There's lots of midnight meetings, coded messages, and quite believable fieldcraft. Not to mention bangs, blood and guts along the way. And cynicism and stiff upper lips.
Widely tipped as 'The New LeCarre', Cumming's undeniable appeal is perhaps a little different. His main focus seems to be what it means to be living a lie, what kind of person do you have to be to be 'an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country', to mildly distort Henry Wotton's phrase.
It's perhaps a sign of Cunningham's success in doing this that he ultimately fails to convince. It's hard for us to understand just how spies do live with themselves? Joe worries about this (well, a little bit); Miles doesn't. But Coolidge is ultimately the more interesting character: and just possibly the more noble.
Cumming has written six books; I've already read four. He's good; don't miss him!
His knowledge of landmarks in Shanghai and Beijing demonstrate this fact.
I felt that the characters were superficial and one-dimensional types commonly found in the spy novel genre.
In Typhoon he does a pretty good job of capturing the Asian expat culture, with a reasonably accurate sense of the locale. Personally, I would have liked to have seen him develop the Chinese characters a bit more. I found them to be a bit two-dimensional and predictable. But in fairness, this is noticeable primarily because he does such a thorough job with the Westerners that you expect it of all the characters.
As with his other books, the plot starts slowly, but gathers momentum throughout. I made the mistake of starting to read one evening a little later than normal, and I literally had to continue until 2:30 in the morning to finish the book.
On the good side, I thought Cummings did a good job developing credibility with fine details about the characters, their lives and the places where they operate. So he puts you in the world and gives you characters whom you recognize to be real people, which is great.
Looking at it as an exciting spy story, though, I don't think Typhoon stands out. Nothing terrifically original or dramatic happens with respect to espionage. No high stakes action scenes, ticking clock, interesting technology.... This is in the decidedly unflashy "spy procedural" mode and would appeal much more to fans of Graham Greene than Robert Ludlum. There is a lot of surveillance and other methodical tradecraft. And perhaps even within this subgenre, Typhoon may be a little dry in my view.
Unfortunately, protagonist Joe Lennox is not quite memorable. He is not particularly brilliant at anything as far as I can tell and his personality seems fairly ordinary. He's a straight up guy and all, but I'm not sure much more can be said. That really doesn't help.
Most importantly, there were some writing choices that did not work at all. The whole thing is supposed to be recounted by this fellow who is not in 90% of the scenes and whose whole purpose in the book is to retell the story later. Weak. Amateurish. I take it Cummings wasn't comfortable with a first person narrative told from Joe Lennox's point of view or with an omniscient narrator. But this conceit didn't work at all. The narrator does such a good impression of being an omniscient narrator, recounting lengthy conversations word for word, that I was periodically surprised to be reminded that this was actually being recounted by an (otherwise irrelevant) character in the story. As an author, you don't want to show your hand too much. A lesson for next time, I suppose. My second issue is that the characters talk for pages. It's not realistic dialogue. There is a ton of exposition about China particularly in the first half that is thrown into the character's speeches. That was clumsy. It improved somewhat over the course of the book.
Lastly, the Americans are certainly tarred with the brush of blame here for everything bad that happens in the book. This may appeal considerably to a certain segment of the European audience, but being done in such a ham handed way, I think it will turn off a lot of readers on this side of the pond. I don't think anyone begrudges a legitimate criticism but to set up the Americans as essentially being responsible for everything bad in the world...well, it was, somewhat like the dialogue and the choice of narrator, simplistic and unimpressive.