Night Heron – Adam Brookes

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.

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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.

A Splendid Conspiracy – Albert Cossery

Since reading his novel The Jokers several years ago, Albert Cossery, the French-resident, Egyptian-born, Syriac-descended anti-materialist author, I have been an admirer of his work. A Splendid Conspiracy is the fourth of his novel I have consumed. While there is a lot to admire in these books, each successive one has rubbed away some of the shine. None of them has lived up to the promise of the The Jokers and each has further revealed some of the warts that plague Cossery’s striking worldview.

The semi-autobiographical hero of A Splendid Conspiracy is Teymour, the heir to the fortunes of a landowner of a small Egyptian city. Dismissive of the pursuit of material goods, the doddering, illiterate old man is nonetheless overawed by the prospects of a diploma in chemical engineering and therefore sent his son to Europe for an education. Teymour, equally unmoved by material things except insofar as they can be consumed, naturally took the opportunity to indulge in the licentious pleasures of European capitals, but, after six years, his father has summoned him. Being without a degree, Teymour pays for a forged diploma and returns home. Fortunately for him, Teymour is rescued from his boredom by an old friend Medhat and Imtaz, a famous actor whose looks are not diminished by his failing eyesight. This troika is determined to entertain themselves by observing others making fools of themselves. While people’s sexual and materialistic foibles are entertaining enough on their own, Medhat has an elaborate prank planned for the wealthy and lustful Chawki, far beyond the usual ploy of summoning him to risqué parties at the home of his former mistress so that she can berate him. So the conspirators set to work.

At the same time, there is a second conspiracy taking place in town. Rich men from the countryside are disappearing from the streets. They are presumed dead, but their bodies are not found. The authorities are at a loss as to what is happening and suspect that the secretive conspirators with no regard for decency and a tendency to randomly purchase things like a school girl’s uniform are revolutionaries or terrorists behind the murders. This is despite protestations of their informer, the young intellectual Rezk who does not believe that these men who are so decent to him could be guilty of such heinous crimes.

A Splendid Conspiracy unfolds at the intersection of these two conspiracies. Its strengths are common in Cossery’s work: scathing critiques of the pursuit of material wants and an elevation of the pursuit of happiness to a divine mandate. There is even something of a touching love story in the novel between Teymour and a saltimbanque, a street performer who entertains people on her bicycle. Much of the story is imbued with little moments where Cossery magnifies the various greeds of each individual character, with the heroes claiming that title because they are greedy for entertainment rather than sex or money or status. A Splendid Conspiracy also wrestled with the theme of longing to be somewhere else, with the characters divided between those finding the small city to be an exotic land filled with wonders, those finding it a bore compared with the wonders of faraway lands, and those who think people are exactly as entertaining everywhere.

The problems with A Splendid Conspiracy are, unfortunately, also common to Cossery’s work. I largely excused the problems with women when I reviewed The Jokers because the critique remained on materialism. In the rest of his work there is more bitterness toward women in general and a greater obsession with young women. The latter is particularly true in A Splendid Conspiracy. For instance, Medhat keeps an eye out for prepubescent girls who he believes will be both beautiful and licentious when they hit puberty and Chawki lusts after young women and laments that his former mistress is old and ugly in her early twenties. Even in a culture of fetishizing teenagers and sexualizing young girls, this near-universal obsession in A Splendid Conspiracy could be tough to read when the frame of the novel seems to condone rather than condemn this interest. What’s more, this is not presented as a cultural norm, but something for the purpose of the men’s pleasure and the only moral quality to it existing in the motives of the men. Chawki is a miser and a slave to his lust and therefore his obsession is something that can be exploited. Medhat, a married man, is in control of his and only looking out for pleasure. Even Salma, the former mistress and a liberated woman eventually proves desperate to cling to her material things.

The portrayal of women presented enough issues for me that I can’t categorically recommend this novel, but, at the same time, the social critiques of materialism and longing were more substantive than even The Jokers. This is solidly my second favorite Cossery novel and worth a read, even if it is also worth looking in askance at the gender politics.

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Next up is an espionage thriller set in China, Night Heron by Adam Brookes.