The Shanghai Factor
Mysterious Press, 2013
Nameless narrator, an aspiring spy, working for an organization with called only HQ, is coming to China to become a sleeper agent in Shanghai, to learn one of the Chinese dialects and to live a normal life of a student. So he does, except that he accidentally meets on the street, after one incident, a young Chinese girl named Mei, who becomes his permanent mistress and teacher of Mandarin at the same time. Agent thinks that Mei herself works for the Chinese intelligence, but he does nothing about it. Mei tells nothing about her life, and the agent does not ask questions.
Then the agent is called to Washington, after which he returned to China, where he receves a job offer from the director of the influential Chinese corporation CEO Chen. By that time Mei disappears somewhere, but she is replaced by another girl working on the corporation. Work for a corporation ends as abruptly as it had begun, but the agent receives a new assignment from his superior officer Luther Burbank, the only person in the HQ who knows about the agent’s job. Unnamed spy must recruit children of influential parents, and he is trying to do just it. The agent is caught between HQ and the Chinese intelligence Guoanbu, and the key to everything may be the missing Mei.
After this novel is hard to argue with the fact that the spy fiction should be written by professionals, spies to be exact. Charles McCarry is a former CIA agent, and he knows his business. The novel is written brilliantly, but amateurs also can write brilliantly about spies. The Shanghai Factor distinguishes the accuracy of details and the knowledge of what is going on in the mind of the spy.
Unnamed spy from the book originated somewhere in the classical fiction. He is not an heir and not a child of Bond, Matt Helm and Sam Durell. Spies here don’t destroy the army of terrorists by themselves that are often found in modern espionage literature, do not shoot with two hands and one foot, do not try to save the world, which already seems to be not in need of salvation. Everyday life of a spy is not explosions every minute and betrayles every day, but learning the language of another country and reading e-mail.
The nameless hero is not quite common. Agent in the novel is a rookie (although he has done some fighting in Afghanistan) spy-wise. He just learns the ropes: the book has a few scenes where the hero, not knowing how to act and what to think, wants to quit his job. Along with the hero the reader also learns spy stuff, and the reader is too far from how intelligence works. This is the cause of the fusion between the character and the reader.
McCarry reduces action to a minimum (unnamed agent at the beginning of the novel is kidnapped and thrown into a river by the unknown Chinese, but it is perhaps the only more or less fighting scene here), but in the details shows the life of a spy, his relationship with his superiors, the essence of the method of tracking and counter-intelligence. And it's an amazing read.
The Shanghai Factor is a book which is also about accidents and coincidences. Is there any coincidence in the spy business, or everything matters?
This book is a must-read for any self-respecting admirer of spy fiction.