Book Review: 'The Shanghai Factor'

Alan Cheuse reviews The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Charles McCarry has been a reporter, an editor and a speechwriter, and he worked undercover for the CIA. McCarry channels this into spy novels, and Alan Cheuse has a review of his latest.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: "The Shanghai Factor" is a first-person account that sounds almost like book-length testimony in a trial by a young, unnamed Afghanistan war veteran who's moving up through the ranks of American counterintelligence. A son of New England patricians, he's acquired a speaking knowledge of Mandarin and soon picks up the Shanghainese dialect while living there as a sleeper agent for the CIA. What appears to be what they call in Hollywood a meet-cute on the street in Shanghai throws him into contact with a local girl named Mei, who happens to have been educated in Massachusetts.

They begin a two-year affair that sets in motion the rest of the story, with the head of counterintelligence at the CIA trying to use our hero as a double agent against the Chinese spy agency, and there's a multimillionaire Shanghai businessman who may also be an intelligence officer for the Chinese apparently trying to turn our guy as a double agent against the CIA. So great complications, and that makes for great and dramatic spy business or tradecraft.

Even though in the novel, we hear time passed sluggishly and the head of U.S. counterintelligence reminds our man that great undertakings in espionage move like a molasses waterfall, McCarry manages to lend nearly every line, scene and chapter in this beautifully paced novel with a force and energy that makes for the very best fiction about espionage - plenty of sex, deception, travel and some murder in these pages. I had become a secret agent, the American spy says at one point, because I could not bear for another minute the pointlessness of life in the real world, which is exactly why you'll want to read Charles McCarry's smart and utterly diverting spy trade masterwork.

SIEGEL: Reviewer Alan Cheuse. The novel by Charles McCarry is called "The Shanghai Factor."

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