"The Spanish Game" is the third novel by Charles Cumming, and the sequel to "A Spy by Nature". Ex-MI6 agent Alec Milius has spent the last six years in exile in Madrid after a failed operation against the CIA. But even as he tries to rebuild his life, working for a British-owned private bank and pursuing an adulterous affair with his boss's wife, he is drawn once again into the world of espionage he thought he had left behind. When Mikel Arenaza, a well-known Basque politician, disappears in mysterious circumstances, Milius takes it upon himself to investigate. But without the backing of any official agency, he is vulnerable: he is not the only one working on the case.
This is a well-constructed thriller in which the pace never lets up. The tension rises throughout the book as Milius delves deeper into the reason for Arenaza's disappearance, gradually becoming mired in a conflict involving the Basque separatist group ETA, the Spanish government, and even the British intelligence services. The foreign setting is used to good effect in this respect: for all that Milius has adjusted to life in Spain, he remains in many ways an Englishman abroad, and quickly finds himself out of his depth, without any allies to turn to and constantly uncertain of who (if anyone) he can trust. At the same time, the author's passion for Madrid is clear - he has lived there since 2001 - and his close attention to detail brings the city to life.
In common with most thrillers, however, what really keeps the reader engaged is not the complex workings of the plot but the main character himself. Milius is the classic anti-hero: conflicted and paranoid, troubled by his past, and a shadow of his former self. While there is much to admire about his resolve, cunning and resourcefulness under pressure, it is his alcoholism, arrogance, and - due to the nature of his work - inability to form genuine, lasting relationships that round him out as a human being and make it possible to really sympathise with him.
If there is one fault, it is that the ending feels a little rushed and anticlimactic, especially after the breakneck journey that is the rest of the novel. Otherwise, however, "The Spanish Game" is a solid read, full of twists and turns, and difficult to put down. As a standalone novel it works very well, although occasional references to past events and old enemies mean that it is probably advisable to read the the previous instalment first.