The Washington-based, former BBC News correspondent Adam Brookes , who reported from China for several years, has written an outstanding first novel about a British scheme to steal secrets there. It is a suspenseful, persuasive story that often pictures the so-called intelligence community — as seen in London, Washington and Beijing — as bureaucracies run amok. Brookes also updates President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 warning about the military-industrial complex with a warning of his own: An emerging espionage-industrial complex is the urgent threat today.
In short, there’s a lot going on in “Night Heron,” and it all starts with an angry Chinese intellectual called Peanut. We meet Peanut — who despite his nickname is a big, powerful man — as he escapes after 20 years in a harsh prison camp in western China. Driven by his hatred of the Chinese government, he makes his way back to Beijing in search of revenge.
We learn that in 1966, when Peanut was a child and the Cultural Revolution engulfed China, Red Guards beat and ridiculed his college-professor father, leaving him a broken man. Nonetheless, the smart and determined Peanut proceeded to college and later joined the Aerospace Institute as a ballistics expert. He was soon recruited by the British Embassy to spy on China’s missile program. But before doing much spying, he joined a pro-democracy protest in Tiananmen Square, was arrested for attacking a soldier and was sent to the prison camp.
Back in Beijing, Peanut offers a British journalist data about a new Chinese missile system. The journalist wants the scoop but fears he’s being set up; he talks to an official at the British Embassy who insists that they must find out whether Peanut — by then a bouncer in a working-class brothel — can deliver the goods.
In fact, Peanut may be able to obtain data about the game-changing missile system, but the theft will be dangerous and time-consuming. At first, only a few people know of the scheme — Peanut himself, the journalist, a British embassy official — but inevitably, others become involved. We get to know spymasters in London and at the CIA and find that almost without exception, the higher they’ve risen, the more clueless they’ve become. We’re rooting for Peanut to succeed but are increasingly fearful that some senior spook, out of incompetence or treachery, will blow the operation sky-high.
All this plays out against a portrait of life in China that feels more like fact than fiction. For example, the graffiti. The government exhorts the masses with posters that proclaim “STABILITY OVERRIDES
EVERYTHING.” In reply, a graffiti artist sprays walls all across Beijing with the image of a menacing figure — variously a dog, a woman, a crow — and beneath it one ominous word: “THREATEN.”
Brookes describes the “English corners” in Beijing in the 1980s, street corners where students went to practice their English with tourists. Spies at the British Embassy saw this as a fine way to meet young people. That’s how they first met Peanut, whose real name is Li Huasheng; the Brits found that if they mispronounced Huasheng in Chinese, it came out as the word for Peanut. So they gave him that nickname, and, perversely enough, he kept it. For their secret files, they gave their valued spy a more elegant name: Night Heron.
A former British spy recalls “the summer of the yellow dress.” That was in 1987, amid stirrings of reform in China. Female students at Beijing University were still wearing drab clothing, but someone noticed canary-yellow cotton dresses for sale in a market near the campus, dresses that allowed tantalizing glimpses of young flesh. Scandalous! One brave girl bought one, then others followed, until the campus was aglow with girls in summer dresses.
“That yellow dress told us that a whole climate of belief and behavior was giving way to something new,” the spy, a woman, recalls wistfully. Alas, not long after came the cruel and massive crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
Peanut confronts a former colleague, a scientist now living comfortably, who scorns his old friend’s hunger for revenge: “We grew up. The Party grew up. The cadres stopped killing the intellectuals and started listening to us. We rebuilt China. We turned our country into a global power. We did that. You’re fighting an old war, Huasheng.”
Who’s right? The half-crazed man who went to prison or the smug one who played the game? The Chinese poetry that Peanut sometimes quotes provides a sad, timeless counterpoint to the violence and duplicity that are central to this portrait of modern espionage.
This is Brookes’s first novel, and one hopes it won’t be his last. “Night Heron” already places him near the first rank of today’s spy novelists.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post.
By Adam Brookes
Redhook. 387 pp. $26