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Espionage and mystery in modern-day China

by Mark Schreiber

Don’t Cry Tai Lake, by Qiu Xiaolong. St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2012, 272 pp., $24.99 (hardcover)
An American Spy, by Olen Steinhauer. St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2012, 400 pp., $25.99 (hardcover)

Qiu Xiaolong’s mystery novels, featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Department, have largely dealt mainly with victims and perpetrators of China’s tumultuous cultural revolution. While they gave historical insights into contemporary China, it is also fair to describe them as a form of dissident literature.

With “Don’t Cry Tai Lake,” Qiu turns his attention from the political baggage of the past to the devastating impact that China’s rapid economic growth has been wreaking on the environment.

Chen, on break from his duties in Shanghai, finds himself in Wuxi City, Jiangsu Province, an ancient city famous for its scenic gardens and Lake Tai. For reasons that are hinted at but which never fully emerge, a senior party official has arranged for Chen to stay at the luxurious Wuxi Cadre Recreation Center on the shore of Lake Tai.

While strolling along the lake, Chen stops for a snack and coincidentally makes the acquaintance of Shanshan, a female environmental engineer employed by Wuxi Number One Chemical Company, who tells him how severe the pollution has become. The lake’s water is so polluted, food vendors — at least the honest ones — obtain their fish from other, safer sources.

Then the director at Shanshan’s company is found murdered, and Chen becomes “unofficially” involved in the investigation, while officially remaining on holiday.

Chen, a confirmed bachelor who in earlier books could hardly be described as a ladies’ man, breaks one of the ironclad tenets in the police manual by becoming romantically involved with a possible suspect in a murder case.

Investigation into the killing by the local police is unimaginative and heavy-handed, and it’s only through Chen’s behind-the-scenes intervention — including the bringing in of his trusted subordinates back in Shanghai — that he prevents an innocent environmental activist from being wrongly charged with the crime.

The Shanghai-born Qiu intersperses passages of Chinese poetry throughout the narrative. These infusions of traditional culture may fly right past aficionados of hard-boiled crime literature, but do not detract at all from the book’s appeal as a meticulously crafted whodunit.

Writing in the tradition of John LeCarre and Frederick Forsythe, American Olen Steinhauer is arguably one of today’s best authors of espionage fiction. His initial works were set in Eastern Europe after World War II, but from 2009 he began a trilogy featuring Milo Weaver, an operative who belongs to an obscure CIA department of field agents referred to as “tourists.” Multilingual, and equipped with multiple identities, they are useful for spiriting defectors to safety and permanently removing troublemakers. The tourists are far less glamorous (and therefore much more plausible) than the likes of James Bond. Likewise, the villains with whom they contend are not exaggerated caricatures out of Batman comix, but treacherous and deadly nonetheless.

“An American Spy” is the third work in the trilogy. The year is 2008 and Weaver is recuperating from having been hunted down and shot by a distraught Romanian father out to avenge the murder of his daughter.

Xin Zhu, the hugely obese but nonetheless brilliant spymaster in China’s public security apparatus, has succeeded in orchestrating the near-simultaneous murders of 33 “tourists,” virtually wiping out the section’s entire personnel roster and resulting in the disbanding of the unit, leaving Weaver’s boss Alan Drummond out of work.

When Drummond’s wife and Weaver’s wife and daughter come under threat, Drummond checks into a London hotel using the name of one of Weaver’s discarded identities, setting off alarms in German and British intelligence agencies. He then disappears, although there is no evidence of an abduction. When the Chinese connection eventually surfaces Weaver, still recovering from the gunshot wound, is forced to come out of retirement and team up with the few surviving fellow tourists to hunt for Drummond, a quest that takes him to Europe, the Middle East, Hong Kong and China.

The book’s implication that China operates an extensive and efficient network in the U.S. for surveillance and intelligence gathering may smack of the “yellow peril,” but paranoia is part of spy thriller writers’ stock in trade, and it may be a testament to Steinhauer’s skills that he writes about China in a convincing and realistic manner. He overcomes the proofreaders’ bugaboo of hanyu pinyin spellings for Chinese personal and place names. And more important he fleshes out the Chinese in his book as real human beings, who, even when working against the interests of the United States, have comprehensible national goals and strong personal loyalties.

Xin Zhu may be the book’s antagonist, but he actually emerges as a “noble villain.” So when the two spymasters finally meet face to face, it’s refreshing to see how they come to terms, agreeing to overlook past transgressions and return to their espionage game in accordance with the established rules. In the end, Xin may feel more secure dealing with his foreign intelligence counterparts than he is contending with the Machiavellian complexities of China’s politburo.