IT MIGHT JUST BE that the modern spy thriller has turned a new page with Adam Brookes’s Night Heron. We all know the thriller writer’s lament that, with the old certainties of the Cold War gone, the classic good and evil battles between East and West are now just fodder for historical fiction. A new sort of contemporary thriller requires new battles.
It’s been a tough couple of decades for writers who like a bit of espionage — and for their readers. The new enemy is tricky: unknowable, unmeetable. The ability to get up close and personal with him — or her — has dropped away. Big faceless corporations bent on profit and lacking ethics filled the vacuum for a bit, but that seems old hat now. Russian oligarchs proved popular, but at the end of the day they’re just shady businessmen, more lightweight Bond villains in Adidas and bling than 21st-century versions of the super-smart KGB officers of old. All the nice descriptions of Dubai skyscrapers, Saudi jihadi training camps, and Kabul back streets were fine, but our boys and girls could never get in there and really interact with their adversaries. China, a country we all know spies on us as we spy on them, has proved appealing, but we can’t really get out there, undercover and inside the system. This has meant that for all the potential dramatic charge of China-set spy novels, for all the local color they provide, they have always been somehow unsatisfactory. Locking horns at a distance (which often means pages of dreary virtual intel and nerdy tech stuff leading to an early night for the reader) just isn’t as good as the classic set pieces of Checkpoint Charlie at dawn, the Bosphorus at sunset, or a dead letter drop at a Prague café.
Until now, that is. The reason you’ll stay up late reading Night Heron is “tradecraft.” Crime novels need detectives to close in on the killer, romance novels need foreplay, vampire novels need bloodlust, and spy novels need this — those little tricks of the trade spies employ. As usual, this book’s MacGuffin is swiftly forgotten — some sort of big missile; a bit bigger than the last missile, but still just a dreary missile — and it’s the tradecraft that propels Night Heron and makes it a genuine page-turner. The major protagonists are perfectly adequate but still superfluous, and fortunately (though inevitably in these gadget-obsessed days they do appear) all the depersonalized computer malarkey is secondary to the major dramatic action, that is, how to get this piece of information we’re not that bothered about from A to B without getting caught and shot.
British Intelligence never tried to recruit me during my long sojourn in China (they’re not called “intelligence” for nothing!), so I have no idea if all this tradecraft and flitting backward and forward from “the field” to Secret Intelligence Services HQ at Vauxhall Bridge would make any sense to a serving officer. But who cares? It’s great fun and Brookes (a BBC veteran who has reported from Beijing, Pyongyang, Kabul, and Washington’s Beltway) understands one essential of good espionage writing, one that adds a veneer of authenticity — we need a bit of slang. Just as New Jersey gangsters now use phrases from The Sopranos, even though the writers of that show had never done anything more criminal than fiddle their expenses, so, apparently, nowadays all spies use terms like “treasure” and “Joe’s” and “The Circus” courtesy of le Carré. Whether or not anyone ever used these terms before the great bard of espionage put them in our ears is unclear — certainly nobody in American intelligence did. And so with Brookes: the novel is baited with enough spook slang to keep us hooked — more or less common ones like “assets” and “ZULU time” and new ones (to me, at least) like “sub-sources” and a particular favorite, “dangle” — a spook verb apparently meaning to be approached by an enemy intelligence service in the hope of compromising you. I, for one, will now be using it in my pub conversations on spies in the hope of appearing glamorous and knowledgeable.
Brookes is also excellent at describing contemporary Beijing, though that’s to be expected from a former foreign correspondent in the city. The handjob parlors, Uighur restaurants, boring endless streets and traffic jams, the foul air, the alienation of most of the population from their fellow citizens, and the all-pervading air of surveillance and suspicion in a setting replete with luxury handbag shops and fancy-schmancy nightclubs. It’s important to get this right — a former generation of spy writers could talk of places few, if any of us, ever saw, such as East Berlin, Prague, or Moscow, places that were much more difficult to see and know 30 years ago than Beijing is today, courtesy of a tourist visa, a cheap flight, and e-bookers. The streets of Kabul, Damascus, or Gaza are basically off-limits to the vast majority of us, but we can stroll around Chengdu or Nanchang with a Rough Guide and an Amex card. To capture the frisson of fear and paranoia in Beijing that lingers, ominously, just below the service veneer of Westernization, to capture the juddering doubts about who is and who is not following you, watching you, reading your emails, listening in on your phone calls, is somewhat harder when half your readership has had a holiday there.
IN ANOTHER NOD to the real world as it is, rather than one of exotic locales, none of Brookes’s characters are particularly likable, which mirrors, I imagine, how many people actually engaged in the intelligence services are. They are rather stock-in-trade, the usual cast of a spy book — the young agent who really isn’t sure if this is the career for her, the section chief who seems a bit flighty but is actually ruthless as hell, the Chinese traitor whose motives are ultimately rather base, the roped-in foreign hack writer who is as boring and self-absorbed as, sadly, many journalists are, doomed to always be peripheral to the stories they cover. All are characters we’d avoid sitting next to at a dinner party. And that’s the point: the characters are believable, no evil geniuses, no Queen-and-Country spy bosses, no superhuman spooks or whiter-than-white agents serving just causes. Just a retinue of people with mixed and fluctuating motives who largely follow orders and rarely, if ever, ask themselves seriously why they are doing what they are doing and for what and for whom. It’s a business, and people are involved for the reasons most of us do what we do — wages, revenge, spite, vanity, orders from on high, and unemployment if you don’t follow them …
Ultimately, as with most of the less obviously partisan spy thrillers these days, nobody comes out of Night Heron well. China is presented as a brutal dictatorship, Western governments as opportunistic, corporations as venal, journalists as naive. All true, though depressing all the same. But the book isn’t. Brookes grabs us from the start with a classic “dangle.” Here’s something you might be interested in Sir, come and take a closer look, just read on a few more pages. And, damn it, you’re hooked and there’s no turning back!
Paul French’s book Midnight in Peking won the 2013 Edgar Award in the Best Fact Crime category, was a New York Times Bestseller and a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and will be made into an international miniseries by Kudos Film and Television.