Veteran journalist-turned-debut spy novelist Adam Brookes knows that the Chinese Ministry of Public Security has a “Dang’an,” or record, on him a solid foot thick—but the Night Heron author doesn’t care. That’s what you get covering Beijing as foreign correspondent for the BBC for as long as he has.
“The Chinese know very well who I am,” Brookes says from his home near Washington, D.C. “I don't think there's much I can do to surprise them.” Maybe not, but readers of Brookes’ inaugural espionage thriller are bound to discover lots of startling and unpredictable turns within its taught, suspense-filled pages.
Centering—not too unexpectedly—on a guy attempting to peddle dangerous Chinese secrets to British intelligence, the wholly fictional plot is actually a variation of events that occurred earlier in Brookes’ 30-year reporting career.
Once, while working in China’s bustling capital, Brookes was approached with what was purported to be a trove of super secret documents. “It was what they call a ‘dangle,’ ” the author says. “I’m pretty sure that it was a test. The Chinese authorities were checking up on me to see if I was truly a journalist, or whether they could get me to buy some secrets. And thus demonstrate that I was actually an intelligence officer.”
Unmoved, Brookes says he sent the shadowy figure packing. “I said, ‘That's not what I do, I’m a journalist,’ ” Brookes, now 50, affirms. “But the incident stayed with me. And I thought about it for several years.”
During that time, the very epitome of intrepid foreign correspondent found that the makings of an absorbing spy saga had, indeed, begun to germinate in his head. But it wasn’t until the late summer of 2008, while suddenly “marooned” far off in the wilds of Costa Rica, that the now burgeoning novelist decided to really get cracking.
“With several days to kick around, I decided to sit down and see if I could write the first couple of pages,” Brookes says. “At that point, I knew this is something that I wanted to do.” It was four more years of globetrotting and rewriting, however, before Brookes actually had a book deal in hand—and with it, entry into the fabled fraternity of other spy novelists, personally revered figures including Alan Furst, Graham Greene and Tom Clancy.
"It's been a whole new approach for me, and a whole new way of looking at writing," Brookes says. It's also become a whole knew way of being perceived by others. Especially in Washington, where one might expect normally reticent beltway boys and girls becoming even more closemouthed when confronting a writer possibly disposed to casting them as thinly-veiled characters in his next spy vs. spy drama.
Or maybe not.
Brookes says he’s actually encountered the opposite from interviewees—particularly in Washington. "When I go into a room and talk to somebody as a reporter in Washington, there's always a lot of hoops to jump through. People are very guarded. But when I walk into a room and say, 'Hey, look, I'm writing a spy novel. I'm not talking to you as a journalist now—I'm talking to you as a spy novelist,’ people actually get very enthusiastic. You glean quite a lot that way."
As a journalist with decades of experience, Brookes knows all about protecting sources. As a spy novelist, he is under no such constraints—but those new freedoms still present special challenges.
"With any spy story, you are immediately talking about the very complex psychology of an individual," Brookes says. "Basically, you are talking about the contract you have with society and the state. When do you keep the state's secrets, and when do you not? You're also talking about the contract you have with the people around you—your wife, your friends and your colleagues. When do you lie to them—and when do you not?"
Joe Maniscalco is a writer living in Brooklyn.