Nuanced, devilishly intricate thriller sends an enigmatic hero to China and far-flung ports to scope out agents, double agents and enticing women.
That a semi-colon (“That archaic punctuation mark…”) turns up here as a clue signals the level of subtlety that characterizes the plot of this latest from thriller and CIA veteran McCarry. Early on comes a harrowing action scene on the Yangtze, but otherwise, quiet and only occasionally violent moments drive the plot. In a tale in which characters are seldom what they seem, it’s significant that the protagonist and narrator (hereafter “Spy”) is never named. Known only to his handler, but not even to the U.S. intelligence agency he works for (also never named but located near Langley, VA., if you need a hint), Spy is a former football jock, a former fighter in Afghanistan and a man who may or may not care about his survival. He’s also intensely hirsute, which prompts Mei, a woman with whom he’s besotted, to call him “the chimpanzee.” But when six thugs abduct Spy, tossing him to the rats in the Yangtze, a contact tells him to get out of China. Back in the States, and desperately missing Mei, he checks in with his handler, Burbank, who makes visitors feel insecure and, literally, unsteady by seating them in a chair with sawed off front legs. Burbank wants Spy to find out what he can about a Chinese conglomerate’s ties to the Goanbu, the Chinese Intelligence Agency. Spy goes to work for the conglomerate. He’s soon jumping continents, gathering data. Before long, he finds himself in mortal danger, shadowed, in chilling scenes, on planes, in restaurants and on city streets. The biggest twist of all comes, well-timed, in the narrative’s final chapters, when McCarry’s largely cerebral puzzle reaches a breathless, emotionally resonant denouement.
Meticulous plotting, literate prose and mordant wit make this a thriller for connoisseurs of the genre.