Preparing for his recent summit with the Chinese premiere, Barack Obama would have done well to make his way happily through Charles McCarry's spiffy new spy thriller. "The Shanghai Factor" is surely as knowing and gimlet-eyed about the Peoples Republic of China as any CIA briefing tome, and it has the additional advantage of being a rattlingly good read. America's preeminent spy novelist -- and part-time Berkshire County resident -- is now in his 80s. The author of 14 novels and a number of non-fiction books, including "Citizen Nader," not only still has his mojo, he seems to have a lot of other people's, too.
Not at all an "action" thriller in the hyped-up Robert Ludlum vein -- ex-spy McCarry knows violence is unusual in an agent's life. "The Shanghai Factor" nonetheless opens with a series of scenes as exciting as any I've read in a long time. The unnamed young spy who is telling his own story has gone undercover as a U.S. sleeper agent in Shanghai. He's supposed to perfect his colloquial Mandarin, hang out with members of the "taizidang," the new-rich, spoiled-brat offspring of China's Communist Party ruling class, and wait for instructions from his boss at "HQ," counter-intelligence chief Luther Burbank.
A young woman named Mei crashes her bike into the spy's, and within hours the two are lovers. It's a relationship that is fraught on multiple levels, and both their lives are soon at risk.
There are other action scenes, too, as the spy tries to survive treachery coming at him from all directions, but it's the personalities and the fascinating tradecraft that McCarry handles as well as, or better than, any other espionage writer, including Alan Furst and John LeCarre. McCarry is the master at recreating a dystopian world where it's best to "believe nothing. Trust no one." Where "every lock can be picked, every flap unglued, every seal counterfeited, every friend suborned."
Why do people become spies? McCarry's hero, who remains nameless throughout the novel, is a cool, complicated, appealingly independent-minded character who, in a moment of candor with himself, declares that "the truth was that I had become a secret agent because I could not bear for another minute the pointlessness of life in the real world." But he also craves the uncertainties of agents' lives in which "if they get themselves into trouble, they'll get no help. If they do well, they'll get no thanks" -- both "catnip to romantics."
Romantic at heart but made cynical by experience, McCarry's bright young agent is well suited to be a tool of the wily Luther Burbank. The U.S. counter-intelligence wizard is like his 19th-century horticulturist namesake in that they both "used similar techniques to tweak nature -- grafting, cross-breeding, happy accidents plants and Shasta daisies in the case of the original Luther, spies and traitors" for the CIA man.
McCarry's prose in "The Shanghai Factor" is as muscularly elegant as ever, his wit as droll -- his sex scenes are unfailingly delightful -- and his take on modern China, which is barely distinguishable from ancient China, is as trenchant as anybody's. And he's just as smart about the current state of the United States of America. There's a good deal of shuttling back and forth from China to New York and Washington for McCarry's spy, and on one of his returns to non-functioning Washington he feels as if he is coming home to a "country on the brink of a nervous breakdown." It's like "waking from a coma and seeing two moons in the sky." That pretty much says it.