Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry (hardcover, $26)

I had to look at the title again and again to make sure I wasn't reading Kafka's "The Castle." Charles McCarry's protagonist in "The Shanghai Factor" doesn't have a name; at least the protagonist in "The Castle" had an initial. In a book that has no action, unless you count colliding bicycles as action, the conclusion has to be that this is not a thriller about spies but an exposition about the psychology of being a double agent or how ambiguous a bureaucracy can be.

For brevity's sake let's call our hero N&A (Nameless and Aimless). N&A has an ear for languages and he can geographically place people by their accents. Although he is a laowai, a foreigner and, furthermore, a hairy white beast, he learns to speak Mandarin fluently, apparently with a Shanghai accent. He spends several years in Shanghai perfecting his Mandarin, while operating undercover for the CIA, although it's never actually called that. As a matter of fact, the agency N&A works for is never named.

N&A has signed on as an independent contractor with the counterintelligence department, under the care of Luther Burbank. McCarry takes a precious paragraph to explain that the character is no relation to the famous botanist, nor is there anything else remarkable about the name. So why name the character that at all?

As a matter of fact, why does McCarry do a number of the things that he does? For instance, Burbank's office is a windowless, cavernous office with safes filled with secrets stacked one upon the other around his room. N&A can only access his "office," a tiny windowless room, through a door in Burbank's office. Also, "The Gang of Thirteen" is an unremarkable group of decision makers who appear abruptly to sanctify N&A's inclusion in the agency, then disappear just as abruptly from the pages.

This is an odd, odd, odd book. The most curious are the "girlfriends" N&A finds. He assumes, and we do as well, that they are agents, but he has a good old time with them, nevertheless. His mission is at all times unclear, his status uncertain, and his agency help unhelpful. For instance, his original mission is to create a fake network of Chinese assets. Burbank suggests using "the usual methods…befriend, befuddle, betray."

If you don't hanker after a Ludlum-type adventure or even a spy novel along the lines of what McCarry has previously written -- he started the Paul Christopher series in 1973 with "The Miernik Dossier"" -- then you have an interesting opportunity to take a journey with a budding young spy as he makes his way through a Kafka-esque environment. Will he fail the apparatus or will the apparatus fail him? Does it ultimately matter?

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