Kirkus Star


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An espionage tale in which the victims caught between governments really bleed: an auspicious, if low-key, suspense debut. It's 1971, and British Intelligence lifts a coded message off the body of a Chinese agent knifed to death on a London street; though they can't decipher the code, they suspect it has something to do with a Russian plan (perhaps with aid inside China) to move against Mao before America and China move closer together. Enter, reluctantly, John Coombs, an embittered logician and ex-Intelligence decoder now living with his Chinese wife and his terminally ill daughter in Hong Kong, where he's writing a doomsday treatise on the future of civilization. Coombs is lured into working on the code--and into going to a math-and-logic conference in Moscow, where a Russian official is ready to leak some information. This info is indeed the clue that Coombs needs to break the code, but by the time he has passed on the solution to London and returned to Hong Kong, the Russians have learned about the leak, have changed the code, and have marked Coombs for death. Before the grisly finale, however, Coombs penetrates the revised code, and the assault on Mao is forestalled. New handles his historical pipe-dream here with economical clarity, deftly briefing the relevant Sino-Soviet background and coloring in the Chinese leadership with believable shadings of detail and dialogue. But more important is the personality at the center, a sneering anti-hero whose actions are not always understandable but whose destruction is truly wrenching. Small-scaled and thinly textured perhaps, maybe a touch too sentimental--but this New boy on the espionage block is the most welcome and promising arrival in some time.

Pub Date: Feb. 22nd, 1978
Publisher: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan