Unless you’re reading something in another dimension, perhaps the best clue that the protagonist survives is the protagonist tells the tale. That doesn’t mean the protagonist survives unscathed, however, just that he or she lives.
The protagonist — he isn’t quite a hero — in “The Shanghai Factor” is a CIA agent about 30 who also is an Afghanistan war veteran. He was badly enough wounded in Afghanistan to think he had died and spent six months in the hospital recovering. He isn’t named in the entire story, but oddly, it doesn’t matter. Because he now works for the CIA, we’ll call him simply “our spy.”
His story opens in Shanghai. He’s a sleeper agent, assigned to learn his way around and be patient; eventually, a mission will come. He gets into a bicycle accident — or maybe it wasn’t an accident — with a young Chinese cyclist whom he comes to know only as Mei.
He comes to know her well enough to spend just about every night with her for 18 months or so, but he doesn’t know a thing about her personal life. He doesn’t even know her last name or whether her first name is actually Mei.
In Shanghai, he’s followed everywhere he goes, but other than fooling around with an attractive young Chinese girl, he doesn’t do anything conspicuous. Yet he gets abducted, taken aboard a boat, warned that he won’t be warned again and is thrown overboard. His “swim” in the Yangtze River is one of the novel’s more graphic experiences.
As for Mei, she doesn’t live with him. She just drops by every night, often with dinner. She won’t have sex with him until he masters his daily lesson in Mandarin, so, of course, he becomes an outstanding student. He accompanies her on occasion to social events involving her friends. They are “princelings,” the adult children of Communist Party bigwigs. Many of the princelings have spent time in the United States, usually as college students. One day Mei stops visiting our spy, and he is called home.
His superior at what he calls Headquarters is a counterespionage guru named Luther Burbank. He’s an inscrutable individual who knows every last thing our spy ever did, even in childhood. Their conversations are strange, punctuated by long silences during which our spy tries to read Burbank’s mind and eventually his own way. Our spy is only slightly troubled - and perhaps a little flattered - when Burbank says no one but the two of them know of our spy’s mission.
Also back in America, our spy encounters a Chinese agent named Lin Ming. Both men try to recruit each other. Our spy is sent back to China, where he goes to work for a Chinese business tycoon who’s also a mover and shaker in the Communist Party. The tycoon, Chen Qi, knows our spy is a CIA agent and our spy knows Chen Qi works for Guoanbu — Chinese intelligence. Chen Qi ultimately terminates our spy, who later finds out that Chen Qi wants him dead. Worse, Chen Qi wants our spy to die slowly and painfully.
Our spy knows he’s in even deeper trouble when $250,000 is mysteriously deposited in his bank account. Sums that large draw the wrong kind of attention from U.S. law enforcement.
And on our spy’s last — and unauthorized — trip to China, a princeling whom he thinks was Mei’s lover asks our spy whether he is familiar with the Dreyfus affair, made famous by Emile Zola. When our spy says he knows of the Dreyfus affair, the princeling says, “You’re Dreyfus.”
Our spy is chilled to the bone to learn he’d been set up. He immediately begins to rethink not just his entire mission but his relationship with the inscrutable Burbank as well. It makes for an unpredictable, yet satisfying ending. Our spy is thoroughly likeable, occasionally cocky and other times self-effacing. Were he otherwise, the story would have failed. Instead, it’s an engaging story deftly told.
The author, Charles McCarry, has written a dozen other novels. He learned spycraft as a deep-cover agent for the CIA in Europe, Asia and Africa. He has residences in both Florida and Massachusetts.
Walt Braun is the Mercury’s Editorial Page editor.