Mysterious Book Report The Shanghai FactorThe Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry

Mysterious Press-Grove/Atlantic, Inc., $26.00, 292 pages, ISBN 978-0-8021-2127-1

Here’s a true confession: I have been fascinated by spies, espionage and tradecraft ever since the 1950’s when I read that first issue of Mad Magazine and was introduced to the iconic Spy vs Spy cartoon strip with it’s two identical antagonists, battling to a constant and eternal draw.  From then on, I have read every spy novel I could get my hands on, from Joseph Conrad to John LeCarre, Ian Fleming to Frederick Forsyth and Vince Flynn as well as many others.  But in all that time, over those many hundreds of books, I don’t think there has been a truer, more accurate and actual, realistic depiction of the life of a spy than this week’s MBR No. 122.  Written by an actual operative and deep undercover CIA agent who spent more than a decade spying on eastern Europe during the height of the Cold War, The Shanghai Factor, by Charles McCarry is the real, real deal and about as close as one can ever be to actual spyhood without taking the oath and completing the training.

Spying is a life of anonymity, mistrust, duplicity, lies, cynicism, paranoia, danger, uncertainty and loneliness.  It has little or no glamour and is, in general poorly compensated and never rewarded publicly.  As the protagonist, known only as ‘A young American spy’ and an alias says on p.68, Befriend.  Bewilder.  Betray.  I know what I should have said.  But a new Faust is born every minute.

The novel opens in Shanghai, China where the young American Spy is tasked with perfecting his Mandarin language skills and absorbing Chinese culture while awaiting his assignment from a spymaster at “Headquarters” whose name may or may not be “Luther Burbank.”  As the young spy is riding his bicycle, a beautiful and mysterious young Chinese woman known only as “Mei” crashes into him.  Intentionally?  Perhaps.  But she threatens to call the police unless he buys her a new and expensive bicycle.  Blackmailed, he complies and they soon begin a sexual relationship, and a teacher to student one as well.  It becomes strange and provocative situation where nothing is as it seems, danger lurks in every hidden meaning behind every word and treachery is everywhere.  It is a world in which, as our young spy says on p.122 Suspicion, prudence, deception are the three muses of the craft . . . and it is an utterly fascinating one as well.  The novel is compelling, fascinating and marvelously well-written.  It will keep the reader glued to the pages long into the night.  The Shanghai Factor is atmospheric, excellent and intelligent.  Dig in and enjoy!


John Dwaine McKenna