Kater (Skills of the Warramunga, 2018, etc.) pits his Australian investigators against a Chinese opium cartel in this fourth entry in his historical espionage series.
In 1946, when an MI6 agent is shot in a poppy field in China and then vanishes, British Col. John Cook asks the two best agents of the Commonwealth Investigation Service’s Australian branch—Jamie Munro and Jack “Jacko” O’Brien—to find the missing operative and destroy an opium processing plant. According to MI6, the drugs are being transported down the Yangtze River and later sent “to the USA, the Philippines and Australia.” Munro and O’Brien are dispatched to Manila, where they meet up with an old ally, American Office of Strategic Services chief Harry Williams. They travel to Shanghai, where they meet Lee Drake, an MI6 agent who served in China and was the only witness to the missing agent’s shooting. Postwar China is hardly at peace, as the embattled forces of Chiang Kai-shek vie with the rebellious soldiers of the Chinese Communist Party; in addition, government-empowered smugglers and localized criminal gangs run amok. The CIS agents must travel up the Yangtze River in a small boat and sail deep into unfriendly territory, and what they find will lead them unexpectedly back home. Throughout this installment, Kater’s prose evokes the story’s time and place with specificity and color: “Red Brandon had desperately continued his search for the hatless man in a GI uniform whom he had first sighted in company with Roddy’s dog, Zhiming. He was accompanied by eight of the Chinese militia, only known to him as the Black Minbing.” The author once again proves to be adept at using his characters’ adventures to explore the minutiae of various countries in Asia and Oceania after World War II. That said, he always brings the action back to Australia, which fans may find a bit too predictable. The novel’s particular brand of Anglophilic nostalgia will not be every reader’s cup of tea, but those who enjoyed the previous books in the series will surely appreciate this newest one.
An entertaining addition to the canon of colonial, upriver journeys.