Monday, March 4, 2019

The Shanghai Factor: Charles McCarry

I was saddened to hear that Charles McCarry has died, on February 26th, at the age of 88. He wrote seven novels about CIA agent Paul Christopher, and several standalone novels. He is one of my top three authors of espionage fiction (the other two are John le Carre and Len Deighton).

I had just finished reading The Shanghai Factor, McCarry's next to last novel, on February 22nd. So it seems appropriate to review that novel at this time.

The story is told by an unnamed spy, working for an unnamed US agency, who is living in Shanghai to learn Mandarin. (And the weird thing is I did not even realize that he was not named until I read it in a summary after finishing the book.)

So for two years (or more?) this American spy lives in China as a sleeper agent, learning Mandarin from a Chinese woman, Mei, that he meets accidentally. Because the meeting is accidental he often wonders if Mei is also an agent, assigned to keep an eye on him. During this time, he is recruited to work for a rich and powerful Chinese CEO, whom he suspects is part of a Chinese intelligence group. Eventually, his life is threatened and he is ordered back to the US, where his handler has new plans for him, using his knowledge acquired while in China.

Most spy novels I read have an underlying theme of betrayal and mistrust, and this one is no different. So I have often wondered why anyone would become a spy or remain in that field. Of course these are fictional spies, but many of the best authors of spy fiction had previous experience in espionage, including Charles McCarry. The protagonist of this novel explains his reasoning: “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.”

The Shanghai Factor was a wonderful read, suspenseful, and has a wow ending, but what I really loved is the protagonist's asides about his life before spying, his relationship with his mother, and his philosophy of life. I was immersed in this novel while reading it, and I will certainly read it again, but nothing else McCarry has written will top the Paul Christopher novels for me.

A possible negative for some readers: This book focuses a lot on sex, and especially the sex life of the protagonist.

This is what Mike Ripley had to say at Shots Crime and Thriller Ezine:
This is a fascinating read, with insights into the world of young, rich Chinese ‘princelings’ who are at heart ‘secret Americans’ rather than die-hard communist party members and a restrained, non-judgemental character study of an intelligent, patriotic, but painfully lonely young man caught up in the spider’s web of spying.
See also:


Publisher:  Mysterious Press, 2013.
Length:      292 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     Shanghai, China; US
Genre:      Spy fiction
Source:     I purchased my copy. 


col2910 said...

I also saw he had passed recently,Tracy. Spooky timing with you just finishing this one. I've had the books a few years or more and still haven't read one of them yet. Maybe later this year?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for featuring a McCarry novel, Tracy. He's one of those authors who don't get as much 'air time' as some other authors, but who have still written really high-quality books. Glad you enjoyed this one. And I have to say, I really like that reasoning for getting into the espionage business...

TracyK said...

I just finished re-reading The Tears of Autumn, Col, and enjoyed it just as much as the first time. And I have his last book, The Mulberry Bush, to read sometime soon.

TracyK said...

It does amaze me, Margot, that McCarry is not better known.

Rick Robinson said...

One reason I avoid spy novels is demonstrated here: no one ever trusts anyone, nor do they believe anything they are told. Too much suspicion. Even when the writing is very good, that lack drags me down.

TracyK said...

I honestly don't know why anyone would be a spy, Rick, under those circumstances. But I still enjoy spy fiction anyway. Maybe because it is a totally different world, one I would not even want to be a part of.