Giving China’s its due in the espionage genre(Book Review)

Title: Spy Games; Author: Adam Brookes; Publisher: Sphere/Hachette India; Pages: 448; Price: Rs.399

China has made its presence felt in several spheres – save spy fiction. Though the espionage genre has transcended its Cold War heritage to take up more contemporary happenings and issues, its geographical expanse remains mostly the same – the Western world, Russia, the Middle East and maybe a exotic location or two for variety.

Though there are works like Charles McCarry’s “The Shanghai Factor” (2014) or Charles Cumming’s “Typhoon” (2013) with a strong Chinese element and setting, both are one-offs, as was John Le Carre’s “The Honourable Schoolboy”, the second of his Karla series.

However proceeding towards remedying this deficiency is BBC correspondent-cum-author Adam Brookes, who, in this sequel to his explosive debut “Night Heron” set in China, not only retains his focus but also incorporates the growing Chinese influence in Africa, the reach of its security services not only in its Asian vicinity, but even to Britain itself – and of its elite to offshore accounts in tax havens.

The visceral start in the heyday of the Cultural Revolution’s excesses sets the tone for a grim but engrossing thriller, with all the trademark appurtenances and tradecraft of the genre, but well updated – use of the ‘dark net’.

British agent Trish Patterson is sent to Hong Kong to meet a key source, who is frantic that he is under threat because he has learned something he shouldn’t, but before he can elaborate, they are forced to call off the meeting after men come on his trail. He later turns up dead in mysterious circumstances.

Meanwhile, journalist Philip Mangan, who was exposed as a British operative at the end of the first book and has consequently buried himself in Africa to protect himself, finds himself caught in a terror outrage in Addis Ababa. Soon approached by a shadowy Chinese operative, who first offers him information about those responsible for the attack, and then key bits of information about Chinese defence plans. Mangan is also invited to Southeast Asia so he can be given much more.

At the same time, the scion of a prominent Chinese family studying in Oxford, who disobeys diktats to keep away from a Chinese girl, from another prominent family, wonders what is the warning she is trying to give him.

In the main story, a bit of inter-departmental wrangling and turf fights – in the best traditions of Le Carre – ends with Mangan being sent to meet his source in Thailand, with Patterson and two soldiers for protection. After a fair bit of adventure and an arduous, confined (hidden under deck) voyage on the Mekong, he reaches a strange resort, where he too late, finds what the real game is – and what his role is fated to be.

All these plot strands come together as China itself moves toward a massive factional conflict – and then resolve in disquieting denouement where every one – apart from the poor protagonists – prove to have to have an agenda of their own.

Brookes, now a BBC correspondent in Washington, was formerly its China correspondent and has made able use of his stint to not only evoke the sights and sounds of China, but also its less visible actions and developments, and faultlines. The African settings and situations are done as well too but what really lends it the right note, even though of bleak pessimism and cynicism, are the ethical dilemmas agents have to confront and how decisions are taken for them by those in a committee room far away, and the less than salutary considerations they may actually be based on.

But he also injects a lighter note sometimes – as when he tells us British intelligence share an important document with their American and major Commonwealth counterparts and then a “stripped-down version, scrubbed almost into invisibility, went to the European Union Situation Centre in Brussels”.

Adept in providing cliff-hangers, Brookes ends it on one too. Anyone who likes the Le Carre mould over the James Bond variant should waste no time in picking this up – the first part is not essential to understanding or enjoying this.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

–IANS

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