Prisoner 5995, a.k.a. Peanut, escapes from a work camp somewhere in Western China after serving nearly twenty years of a sentence, eludes the manhunt and makes his way to Beijing. He finds the world has changed dramatically since his arrest and falls back on his training to evade notice while developing a plan that will punish those who he blames for his incarceration and allow him to get out China. Toward the former, he makes contact with Wen Jinghan, an engineer who had supplied him with state secrets in his former life as a spy, and with Philip Mangan, a reporter who works for the same newspaper that employed his former contact with British Intelligence. Bewildered, Mangan turns reaches out to contacts in the British government, who decide to use him as Peanut’s handler after Peanut supplies the cover page to a report detailing the state of the Chinese missile system.
The tension grows as Chinese are alerted to an intelligence leak and begin to close in on Mangan and his associates, including on his photograph and girlfriend, and the British services change the parameters of the mission. Peanut doesn’t particularly care about the secrets he is peddling and Mangan is more bewildered than dedicated, but both find themselves trapped in the space between agencies, neither of which cares about their wellbeing except to how it serves their impersonal ends.
I picked up Night Heron, Brookes’ debut novel, because of a recent interest in reading more spy/detective thrillers and it appeared on a list of best new books in the genre. There is good reason for this. Brookes, a longtime journalist in East Asia, gives enough detail about China and how it has changed in recent years, both in terms of the relationship between the citizens and the government and in terms of the physical space that there really is a particular setting. He also successfully builds suspense in this sprawling story by showing how many characters are working multiple angles, while Peanut is lost in a modern world, and Mangan is befuddled by the games within games. The lack of certainty does its job.
Brookes describes Night Heron as his “efforts to understand something of what goes on in the world of intelligence,” and this shows through. Mangan takes on the role of author and reader surrogate, trying to understand what is happening so that he can stay one step ahead of the agents trying to stop Peanut. Mangan was also the most fully-realized character, as the large number that appeared led to a number of flat characters such as the beautiful Chinese spy who seduces a married American contractor who fill out archetypes and exist for the purposes of moving the plot along more than adding much to the story in their own right. Similarly, Brookes is more adept at identifying how technology might cause a spy unfamiliar with it to go obsolete than he is at developing the consequences of those themes.
My favorite thriller novels usually raise the tension with a tight narrative that is ultimately a cat-and-mouse game between two entities. Night Heron is a small story with big stakes, but something is lost in that it also stretches to at least four or five distinct locations and with at least three distinct plots. For much of the novel the tension is that of the paranoia of the unknown and is (appropriately for this story, in my opinion) juxtaposed with the chess players back in England whose lives are not immediately at stake. The cats are not awake yet, but the mice know they are there. Toward the end of Night Heron the cats awaken, but this part of the story felt somewhat perfunctory–a frenetic chase that places the mice in danger, causes the arrest of minor characters, and validates their paranoia in spades, but was also a transition that I found jarring. These were all issues I had that were well within the parameters of the story, but that detracted from the pacing and depth of the novel in ways that struck me as signs of a first book while also giving me hope that he can mature as a storyteller.
Night Heron is a good first novel from an author who is worth keeping an eye on and gives plenty to think about, but was to my taste flawed. Hopefully the stories become tighter and more fully fleshed out as Brookes develops his craft and if good reviews continue to come in I will check back in in a few years.
Next up, I have been slowly making my way through Stefan Zweig’s beautiful The Post Office Girl while doing some recent travel. I also splurged on too many books to list here and as a result have no idea what I am going to read next, but am particularly looking forward to To Each His Own and The Day of the Owl, two short novels by the Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia.