A British/Chinese/Soviet espionage episode circa 1978--rich in promising, le CarrÉ-like nuances, but uncertainly paced and...

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DOWN AMONG THE DEAD MEN

A British/Chinese/Soviet espionage episode circa 1978--rich in promising, le CarrÉ-like nuances, but uncertainly paced and lacking in strong narrative drama. The novel's first half, sometimes narrated by British Intelligence desk-man David Nairn (whose first-person fragments are awkwardly integrated), details the operation that ensues when the murder of a Chinese spy in Nepal casts suspicion on a Hong Kong spy named Ling: two of Nairn's agents--Benjamin Foo and Ruth Asher (Nairn's ex-lover)--trail Ling, hoping to figure out whom he's working for and what he's up to; Ruth is grabbed by the bad guys, tortured, then rescued. And, recovering back in London, Ruth finds an old photo of Ling in Intelligence archives--a photo which leads the British to a dying Russian-refugee woman (also in the picture). . . whose deathbed reminiscences of 1940s Soviet/Chinese comradeships suggests that Ling may in fact be doing spy business with a KGB agent (the dying woman's long-ago lover). The investigation switches, then, to Vienna--where the British close in on KGB agent Golovkin with assorted blackmail pressures and extract a confession: Ling is working for Taiwan, Golovkin is his Russian contact, and a deal is in the works for Moscow to send nuclear missiles to Taiwan! (There's also a scheme to blame the US for the arming of the Nationalists.) So the British quickly come up with a naval plan to prevent this Soviet/Taiwan shipment from arriving--without ever letting either the US or Japan (whose cooperation is needed) know quite what's going on. But, though the scheme is a success, a final twist is in the works (one that supposedly clears up a bit of China/Vietnam military history). . . while Ruth, too long frustrated in her love for loving but remote widower Nairn, turns to middle-aged Foo . . . who has meanwhile been fired for a bit of idealistic quasi-treason. Lots of potentially rich material here--the Russian/Chinese spy roots, the Moscow/Taipei connection--but ex-agent Hartland, who writes with crisply sturdy efficiency, hasn't found the right shape for suspenseful plotting and hasn't come up with involving central characters. (Ruth is the best of a bland lot.) For aficionados of low-key, textured espionagerie: just-passable diversion.

Pub Date: April 1, 1983

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1983