Thriller with Chinese Characteristics5 min read

Sam Geall reviews The Spy’s Daughter by Adam Brookes


The Spy’s Daughter, a novel by former BBC correspondent Adam Brookes, completes a trilogy starring Philip Mangan, a peripatetic journalist-turned-agent. Brookes’ first two books both drew strong reviews, and several memorable characters familiar from the earlier instalments are back – most notably, Mangan’s ex-soldier handler, haunted by her tours of Iraq and Afghanistan – while some interesting new ones are introduced, including a sleeper agent in the United States and a gifted young engineer.

In The Spy’s Daughter, Mangan is wandering in Southeast Asia, hung out to dry by his erstwhile MI6 handlers in London, and living his cover as a freelance journalist. But he is pursued by Chinese intelligence, and possessed of a gnawing desire to tug at a lead: an address, given to him on the banks of the Mekong River by a treacherous Chinese colonel. This takes him to Suriname, a tiny state on the Atlantic coast of South America, where a Chinese lawyer helps officials to launder their money, and into the path of Pearl Tao.

Pearl is a Chinese-American university student whose extraordinary mathematical ability sees her plotting the dynamics of drone swarms – how tiny, autonomous aircraft can interact to cover a large area, or overwhelm an enemy – and exploring the edges of artificial super consciousness. The US defence industry is paying for her education, keen to recruit her after her degree for roles that require Top Secret security clearance. She starts an innocent, stuttering relationship with an older PhD student, but she lives at home and is stifled by a controlling, violent father.

When Pearl’s parents take her on an unexpected holiday to the Caribbean island of Aruba, and then even more suddenly to the Surinamese capital, her sense of who her family are and what they expect of her begins to unravel. Meanwhile, the ex-soldier, Trish Patterson, has been side-lined at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., where she finds herself investigating the suicide of a prominent State Department China analyst. As the three stories start to intertwine, the novel takes us from Southern China to San Francisco and from the Beltway to Beijing – the last two locales both being ones Brookes knows well, having spent years reporting from China’s capital in the 1990s and then serving a stint as the BBC’s Pentagon correspondent, during a career in journalism that also took him to Afghanistan.

The novel is densely plotted but fast-paced. There is old-fashioned tradecraft – think dead-drops in the toilets of grimy restaurants – and plenty of paranoia, but little nostalgia. Its characters inhabit a recognisably contemporary world of hacking, industrial espionage, and fluid identities – journalist, policy-wonk, engineer, spy – and, despite much of the novel being set around Washington, they live in a notably post-American world order.

Much as the United States loomed over earlier eras of spy fiction – be it in the murk of the Cold War, or the fear and moral compromises of the War on Terror – Brookes has emerged as fictional chronicler of rising Chinese power and influence. Chinese espionage, in his telling, not only targets the military industrial complex in Western states, but also reaches deep into new client states in the developing world. Along the way, individuals risk being ground between the gears of competing national security and economic interests.

Brookes’s first novel Night Heron started with a scene drawn from his own experience as a journalist, which he recounted to the New York Times, when an elderly Chinese man came to his bureau with purportedly classified documents, saying “he wanted to pass secrets to the British government, and wanted me to help him do it.” His second novel, Spy Games, explored the fallout of a high-level anticorruption drive, including for those well-to-do “princeling” children of Chinese officials at Britain’s top universities.

This novel resonates too with reality. On August 28, 2017, a Chinese-Canadian dual citizen, apparently working as a patent lawyer for a Beijing-based firm, walked into the corporate headquarters of robotics company Medrobotics in Raynham, Massachusetts, fired up three laptops, logged onto the guest network (the password was posted on the wall) and, according to the Department of Justice, started to steal advanced trade secrets.

Most of China’s innovation progress in recent years has been achieved lawfully, but as an academic text from 2013, Chinese Industrial Espionage: Technology Acquisition and Military Modernization, put it, the People’s Republic is also carrying out “a deliberate, state-sponsored project to circumvent the costs of research, overcome cultural disadvantages and ‘leapfrog’ to the forefront by leveraging the creativity of other nations,” thereby achieving “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.”

In all three novels, Brookes has explored and extrapolated from a close observation of Chinese politics, strategy and intrigue – from the legacy of the Mao Era anti-rightist movement, to the repercussions of President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on official graft, and the implications for the security state of China’s vast Belt and Road initiative to open new road and maritime trade routes – to build a believable world of spies, officials, dissidents and underworld operators.

For a novel that deals with advanced technology and computing, it doesn’t here have the dextrous, imaginative quality of cyberpunk or SF writing: think Le Carré, not Gibson. But its descriptions of China are pitch perfect to those who have lived there, and should resonate with anyone following the country’s rise and its ambitions to become an innovation superpower. It’s also suspenseful, with characters that, for the most part, avoid the hoary stereotypes of the genre. This book sets a new standard for spy fiction that takes China seriously and reflects the shifting dynamics of the uncertain, strange conjuncture we find ourselves in. ∎


Adam Brookes, The Spy’s Daughter (Sphere, July 2017). The mass-market paperback is released by Redhook tomorrow, October 31.