Redhook, 416 pages, $14.95 (c2014)
“Night Heron” is a provocative, cynical novel about a British journalist in China being drawn involuntarily into the world of espionage. Adam Brookes is himself a journalist with Asian credentials on his resumé. For people used to James Bond/Mission Impossible action, most of the action here takes place in the last hundred pages of the book. There are chases, subterfuge, and violence in the first three hundred pages, but they are of the quieter variety. One can almost see the tension peak like a lop-sided roof during the book. Everything seems to be going fine, then wham, we're off to the races!
Philip Mangan is journalist for a small British news service. His colleagues, Harvey and Ting, are also friends. They are good at investigating substantive Chinese issues, like underground rebellions, and proud of what they do. Then Peanut comes into Mangan’s life.
The first part of the book deals with Peanut’s escape from a “re-education” facility. After twenty years away, Beijing is another world to him. Of course, Peanut is not his real name. Before he was sent away, he was an unworldly, intelligent, optimistic volunteer agent for British intelligence. Using his old contacts, he tries to put himself back in that picture as a way of getting out of China. Unfortunately, his old spy contact, a man working undercover as a journalist, is long gone. Mangan is the closest Peanut can get. But it’s not close enough because Mangan has no idea in hell what to do.
“Night Heron” is a sideways look at how global economics and cyberpolitics shape the world. The bad guys wear black hats, but maybe there aren’t any white hats because there aren’t any good guys. It’s fifty shades of a grey moral wasteland. I would have been disappointed if the book had been given to tidy resolutions, but it certainly isn’t for readers looking for James Bond-style romanticizing.
The spy plot aside, Brookes writes about China with open eyes and affection. It’s a good combination of life through the eyes of a foreigner and a thoughtful world view.