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THE PEKING LETTER by Seymour Topping

THE PEKING LETTER

By Seymour Topping

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 1-891620-35-5
Publisher: PublicAffairs

A vivid portrait of the last days of the corrupt Nationalist regime in China, by a former reporter clearly familiar with the terrain. Topping (Journey Between Two Chinas, 1972) sets his first novel in 1949, in the final months before the collapse of the Nationalist regime under Chang Kai-shek. Protagonist Eric Jensen, a young American in love with all things Chinese, is teaching in Peking while writing a book on the ancient philosophy of Taoism. Contemptuous of the violent Nationalists, who are increasingly isolated from the Chinese people, he holds out hope that the Communists will bring stability and freedom to the harassed and ill-fed Chinese. His admiration for China attracts the attention of the fledgling CIA, who pressure him into serving as a go-between who can carry American diplomatic initiatives to the Communists. His life is further complicated when he’s recruited by the Communists in the extremely dangerous negotiations going on to insure that the Nationalist general in charge of Peking will surrender the city without a bloody door-to-door battle. Part of the reason Eric agrees to cooperate is his growing love for Li-nan, a student working with the Communists to spare her country from further devastation. Eric’s efforts quickly draw the attention of the lethal Nationalist secret police. And, when matters begin to veer out of control, the CIA seems inclined to silence him as well. Topping, who covered the civil war for the New York Times, gives a convincing portrait of the fall of the Nationalists: his descriptions of battlefields, devastated towns, and the privileged life of foreigners in old China as it gives way to the new have a spare, powerful conviction. His characters can be less convincing; Li-nan is admirable but one-dimensional, and Eric, is an often surprisingly unreflective student of Taoism, more given to action than to analysis. Still, Topping’s obvious fascination with China and his ability to propel a complex plot make for an absorbing, if somber, thriller.