There is often a bittersweet taste to Charles McCarry's best work. In Christopher's Ghosts (see my 2008 review here), it was the pang of nostalgia, and the events that made McCarry's trademark fictional spy what he became. There is a touch of that same sadness in The Shanghai Factor, but here we are watching a man become a spy, and it's not so much that he has to learn about the losses necessary when one plies that trade, it's our growing realisation that the trade itself comes naturally to him.
McCarry's anonymous hero falls under the wing of an experienced CIA man named Burbank, who runs him on a mission in China which will remain secret between the two of them, and grows more and more complicated as he infiltrates, as it were, the complicated world of Chinese business. Eventually, back in America, he and a Chinese agent will play a complicated game of cat and mouse, each trying to 'turn' the other, each knowing what the other may be doing—a battle of wills and wits which McCarry compares metaphorically to their playing one-on-one basketball.
This is complicated by the fact that our hero is in love, with a Chinese woman, Mei, whose bicycle-crash meeting with him in Shanghai identifies her as an agent. Of course the affair ends, as he moves on in the world of China, but the anonymous affair (Mei, of course, must be a code name) remains for him almost obsessional, even after he has left China.
As the novel builds up, the suspense, which is built from the many ambiguities of the tale, intensifies, which has the remarkable effect of putting the reader into the position of the agents. This is where the inevitable comparisons of McCarry to (I would argue early) LeCarre are most valid—both have this ability to confront and confound the reader with the complexities of the world of espionage. And both are well aware, as we are told here, in probably the most crucial line in the book that 'the entire basis of espionage is trust'.
Like LeCarre, McCarry is also aware that the nature of spying has changed, because the nature of the world has changed, and the old battle of two super powers on a roughly equal footing has disappeared. Commercial interests have their own part in the game now, and in China, we have a budding superpower which remains in part the 'inscrutable' land we read about in 1930 pulp magazines and Fu Manchu novels.
The complicated plot is resolved in a somewhat less ambiguous manner than some readers might have hoped—there are a couple of twists whose outlines, at least, should have been more obvious to our hero—and I was convinced that one final twist of betrayal was coming at the end, but it never does.
But I mentioned that McCarry's work has often been bittersweet, and there is one revelation which has the same sort of impact as his stunning last line of Christopher's Ghosts. Again it involves lost love, and it works because it is so understated, and we realise that one of the basic spying assumptions our agent made, right from the beginning, was completely wrong, totally backwards, and that sometimes people do act for reasons of their own, reasons of the heart. As our hero himself states, in a bit of self-created Lao Tzu or Laozi as he's now known, 'the wise man does not believe in triumph'.
The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry
Head Of Zeus £14.99 ISBN 9781781855096
NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)