The scenic but utterly shapeless WW II exploits of Hong Kong ""tai-pan"" Vincent Stafford--grandson of Ross Stafford, who founded the family's commercial empire in the far more entertaining The Pagoda Tree (1980). In 1941, when the Japanese first start threatening Hong Kong, narrator Vincent is a recent army volunteer, an office-soft neophyte who has finally succeeded in shipping wife and kids off to safety in Australia. But soon, stranded on his own as Japanese patrols begin swamping the area, he's on the perilous run--along with Private J. H. ""Raucous"" Rawcliffe, a Yorkshire/Cockney sidekick. A fisherwoman/smuggler sneaks the twosome over to the Kowloon mainland, where they're sheltered, then joined, by Raucous' ""downhomer""--mistress Aggie Tong. Next stop: the home of two English little-old-ladies . . . who turn out to be British Intelligence agents, sending the trio (with a guide) north along the Pearl River. Eventually, then, the fugitives reach the headquarters of Professor Kwan, an Australian/Chinese spymaster who recruits Vincent for an important mission--setting up a safe trail to Kweilin (through caves and Communist territory). But though the trek goes well at first, on the way back Vincent and pals are captured by a Japanese patrol: they escape, along with fellow-prisoner Shivka Ulanov, a Russian-English interpreter; they make their weary way to Chungking, meeting up with Vincent's feisty hotel-keeping mother (who happens to be a chum of Shirks's). And now Vincent is recruited by another spy-chief, for two more missions--first to Calcutta, where he is unknowingly used to bait a trap for a double-agent; then back to Hong Kong, where he must sneak into a POW camp, rendezvous with an agent there, and also (as a favor to Prof. Kwan) try to help set up a radio-communications system with Long John Silberstein, a crooked, one-legged, American super-engineer. Asia-veteran Mather knows this territory, to be sure--so you'll find both authentic history and geography here, with Vincent's narration occasionally lifted into savvy ironies. (""I prefer not to dwell on the crossing of the sewage farm. . . . If there is a more depressing place than Chungking, then God preserve me from it."") But, despite a sliver of romance with Shivka, there's nothing in Vincent's character to generate emotional involvement. And, with yards of stagey, explanatory dialogue slowing things down (to tepid 356-pp. length), this string of feebly connected escape/spy/survival episodes is only sporadically exciting or suspenseful.