China Books

Ep. 6: Spy novels, a real-life thriller, and the BBC

March 05, 2024 Adam Brookes Season 1 Episode 6
Ep. 6: Spy novels, a real-life thriller, and the BBC
China Books
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China Books
Ep. 6: Spy novels, a real-life thriller, and the BBC
Mar 05, 2024 Season 1 Episode 6
Adam Brookes

Acclaimed spy novelist Adam Brookes started out in China as a languge student in the mid-'80s, skipping class to travel in trucks and buses to Tibet and other parts of China that had just opened up after being shut off to foreign visitors for decades. He want back as a BBC China correspondent, informed by his earlier experiences in remote parts of China, and informing a huge global audience about China's transformation. He has since parlayed both of those early chapters in China into vivid and thought-provoking writing, both in his spy novel triology Night Heron, Spy Games, and The Spy's Daughter, and in his narrative non-fiction thriller Fragile Cargo: The World War II Race to Save the Treasures of China's Forbidden City. In this episode, he talks about how, with each form of writing, he has tried to bring China to life for his audiences, and deepen understanding of a complex place and people, and China's impact on the world. 

The China Books podcast is hosted and produced by Mary Kay Magistad, a former award-winning China correspondent for NPR and PRI/BBC's The World, now a senior fellow at Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. This podcast is a companion of the China Books Review, which offers incisive essays, interviews, and reviews on all things China books-related. Co-publishers are Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, headed by Orville Schell, and The Wire China, co-founded by David Barboza, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times China correspondent. The Review's editor is Alec Ash, who can be reached at

Show Notes Transcript

Acclaimed spy novelist Adam Brookes started out in China as a languge student in the mid-'80s, skipping class to travel in trucks and buses to Tibet and other parts of China that had just opened up after being shut off to foreign visitors for decades. He want back as a BBC China correspondent, informed by his earlier experiences in remote parts of China, and informing a huge global audience about China's transformation. He has since parlayed both of those early chapters in China into vivid and thought-provoking writing, both in his spy novel triology Night Heron, Spy Games, and The Spy's Daughter, and in his narrative non-fiction thriller Fragile Cargo: The World War II Race to Save the Treasures of China's Forbidden City. In this episode, he talks about how, with each form of writing, he has tried to bring China to life for his audiences, and deepen understanding of a complex place and people, and China's impact on the world. 

The China Books podcast is hosted and produced by Mary Kay Magistad, a former award-winning China correspondent for NPR and PRI/BBC's The World, now a senior fellow at Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. This podcast is a companion of the China Books Review, which offers incisive essays, interviews, and reviews on all things China books-related. Co-publishers are Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, headed by Orville Schell, and The Wire China, co-founded by David Barboza, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times China correspondent. The Review's editor is Alec Ash, who can be reached at

China Books podcast
Ep. 6 CBP, Spy Novels, a real-life thriller, and the BBC: A China writer’s journey
By Mary Kay Magistad



[00:00:00] Mary Kay Magistad: Nothing like settling into a good spy novel and getting pulled into a world of deception, danger, and daring. And learning something along the way. About spycraft. About what the powerful think is worth getting and worth protecting. Maybe even about China. There are many ways of understanding China and writing about China.

And this episode is about that. 


This is the China Books Podcast, a companion of the China Books Review. I'm Mary Kay Magistad.

(Music out) 

My guest in this episode, Adam Brookes, has gone from being a BBC China correspondent to an acclaimed author of spy novels, Night Heron, Spy Games, and The Spy's Daughter, to the author of a narrative nonfiction book, Fragile Cargo: The World War II Race to Save the Treasures of China's Forbidden City. I've known Adam since even before we overlapped as Beijing based China correspondents in the 1990s, when I was there for NPR and he for the BBC. We also overlapped in Southeast Asia before that, when Adam was based in Jakarta and I was in Bangkok. Adam's been adventurous in his writing since then, striking out in new directions and exploring new ways to help his audiences better understand China. Let's dive right in. 

So, Adam, you're a gifted writer. Your writing, both in fiction and non-fiction, is vivid and absorbing, and has been critically acclaimed, with your novel Night Heron getting Best Book of the Year mentions from NPR and the Times (UK) Literary Supplement and others, and with David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist and associate editor, who himself is a respected author of spy novels, having listed Night Heron among his six favorite spy novels, along with Graham Greene's The Quiet American and John le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Congratulations on that. 


[00:02:06] Adam Brookes: Thank you very much. I didn't actually know David Ignatius had done that. That's news to me. I'll have to go and look it up. 


[00:02:12] Mary Kay Magistad: Yes! Yes, in The Week, in 2020. Your most recent book, the real life thriller, Fragile Cargo, The World War II Race to Save the Treasures of China's Forbidden City, was praised by the Wall Street Journal as “a story of bravery and ingenuity that in drama and wonder far outstrips The Monuments Men. We'll talk about both of these books and about your other writing that weaves in China in some way, but first, I'm curious. Which came first, your interest in writing or your interest in China? 


[00:02:41] Adam Brookes: Oh, that's a great question. It would have to be my interest in China, I guess. I studied Chinese at university as an undergraduate, way back in the 1980s, at the University of London.

And I then became a journalist, a reporter, a broadcast reporter for the BBC. And I suddenly realized that I needed to start taking writing much more seriously than I had done in the past. And I also had some very good training in the BBC in how to write. I had never really thought of myself as trying creative writing, particularly fiction writing until my late 20s, when I decided I was going to have a go at it. And I did. And I think I possessed just enough self-awareness to know that what I was writing was rubbish. It was tripe. And I threw it all away. So that disappeared. My early writing is not available for posterity. And I thought, obviously that's not going to be for me. And I didn't start thinking about creative writing, fiction writing, again until I was in my 40s, actually, when I thought I would have another go at a novel. So my interest in China as a reporter, and being posted as a foreign correspondent to China, well predated my decision to make a serious attempt at long-form narrative writing. 


[00:04:13] Mary Kay Magistad: What made you decide in your 40s to have another go at it?


[00:04:15] Adam Brookes: Oh, midlife crisis? I don't know. (Laughs.) I've always really, really enjoyed the spy novel just as a form. I've read and reread Le Carré many, many times. And I think it's a wonderful vehicle for talking about all sorts of things. And when I was, how old was I? God, about 44, 45. I was in Finland, actually, with my family on a beach looking out over the Baltic. And it was a very sort of atmospheric afternoon with gray lowering clouds over the Baltic on the Finnish coastline. And I just suddenly was reminded of all those wonderful spy stories that are set around the Baltic, Le Carré's stories, the writing of Alan Furst, another fabulous spy writer. And I suddenly thought, you know what? I really want to try again. I just want to have another go and see if I could create an atmospheric, thoughtful espionage novel that talks about all the wonderful themes that espionage novels do. And I mentioned it to my wife and she undoubtedly thought it was a midlife crisis, but she gave me the go ahead to try it. And so I started writing here and there, bits and pieces over the next few years. And over a couple of years, I got the first five chapters of Night Heron written, and then decided that I was going to finish it. I was going to do it. Yeah. So that's sort of how it came about. 


[00:05:40] Mary Kay Magistad: So that was how the spy novel writing came about. The China side of it, what drew you to focusing on China? 


[00:05:49] Adam Brookes: The commercial novel, the spy novel, the crime novel, what we often think of as genre fiction, not much of it has tackled China in any shape or form. There are a couple of famous spy novels that do talk about Asia. There's The Honorable Schoolboy by Le Carre, of course, and there's The Quiet American by Graham Greene, the greatest of them all.

But not so many spy novels attempt to take a look at China. As a journalist, as a reporter, particularly reporting out of Washington DC and out of the Pentagon, I had become dimly aware of this kind of enormous espionage effort that goes on between the United States and China. The United States directs enormous resources to collect intelligence on China, and China does the same on the United States. And I began to get a sense of just how huge this spy confrontation was. And I thought it would make a wonderful set of materials to attempt a China spy novel. So I guess my reporting and the materials that one gathered as a reporter kind of led into that. 


[00:06:58] Mary Kay Magistad:  You call it the espionage industrial complex in your novel.


[00:07:02] Adam Brookes: The ‘espionage industrial complex’ is a term that I use to represent the huge industry, both government and private sector, that is engaged in intelligence gathering globally, but especially on China. It's not only governments that do espionage these days. It used to be the core function of the state. But now it's spread outwards into the private sector as well. And many, many contractors, private corporations, are involved in gathering intelligence on China, and there's a lot of money to be made in it. 


[00:07:35] Mary Kay Magistad: Do you feel like you reached an audience with this that you wouldn't have reached if you had done a piece of explanatory or investigative journalism for the BBC?


[00:07:46] Adam Brookes: That was what I hoped. The commercial novel is a really powerful vehicle, if you can get it to break through and get the attention that you need and build an audience, which is not an easy thing to do. And with books about China in general, it's difficult to get people to pay attention. 


Mary Kay Magistad: Why is that?


Adam Brookes: I don't know. What do you think? I mean, we found this in journalism too, right? China stories are not easy to tell. What's your sense of that? 


[00:08:18] Mary Kay Magistad: China's a complicated place. And I think for people who don't already have some familiarity with it, it's on the other side of the world. It's like, how does that directly affect me? I think increasingly in the United States, people began to internalize how it was affecting them and to pay more attention.


[00:08:34] Adam Brookes: We talk a lot in the United States about China competence, right? And how we all need to be more “China competent” in commerce and business and the economy, and especially in government. This is a buzzword of the day, China competence. I get the sense that everybody feels like they should be reading books about China and they should be reading those long pieces in The New York Times, and they should be listening to all those fabulous podcasts about China. But in reality, they're not really doing it the degree to which they think they should be. And it's still hard to get people to engage with the broader China story, and to sort of do the work a bit. My intention, yes, to go back to your previous question, was always, well, if you can make it entertaining, if you can make it exciting, maybe you can get people's attention and you can start smuggling in some larger ideas about China and what we talk about when we talk about China. And that's why I think the commercial novel is such a great vehicle. 


[00:09:34] Mary Kay Magistad: Have you gotten feedback from readers that you did that for them?


[00:09:38] Adam Brookes: I have. I have. I mean, maybe not as much as I would have liked, but I have. People have said to me things like, well, reading Night Heron and the two subsequent novels in the trilogy, that it perhaps gave them some handholds and some footholds on aspects of Chinese society that they hadn't had before -- things like the role of the Party, things like a little bit of the structure of the Chinese security state, a little bit about how people in China, particularly those involved in national security in China, sort of how they see the world a bit, a little bit of how they view the threats, what they see as the threats to China coming from the outside. So yeah, it has happened a bit. But it's not my intention to write novels that say to you, you know, “eat your spinach, learn about China.” My intention is to write novels that keep you up ‘til 2 in the morning. I mean, that's the idea. 


Mary Kay Magistad: But can't it be both? 


Adam Brookes: Well, it can if you're careful. People don't like being lectured at in the novel. They don't like reading pages of didactic stuff. So, if you're going to try and smuggle those ideas into the novel, you have to do it through character, and through the devices of the novel, and through great dialogue, and through situation. You have to show, not tell -- all those things we know about fictional writing -- rather than give people lectures.


[00:10:58] Mary Kay Magistad: So you answered the question about “why China?” in your novels, but also I'm interested in what got you interested in China in the first place in the early ‘80s. Because I was actually living in Britain in the early ‘80s. I did my Master's there. And there wasn't a lot of interest in China then. What got you interested?


[00:11:18] Adam Brookes: To be perfectly honest, it was really the idea that if I went and studied Chinese at university, I would get a free year in China. It was part of the course at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I was going to do a language of some sort. My father had always fancied himself a bit of an Arabist, and he planted the idea in my mind that if you're going to learn a language, learn one that other people don't speak. You know, it's more useful that way. So, I looked at Russian, and I looked at Chinese, and Japanese, and Arabic, and some others. And Chinese offered you this full year in China, all expenses paid, as part of your degree course. And that was too good to pass up. So I can't claim that it came from any great deep commitment intellectually to the idea of China at the time. But as I got into my university course and I spent more time in China, I began to find myself drawn very deeply into the desire to learn more and to know more and to really commit. 


[00:12:18] Mary Kay Magistad: So you were there in 1984 as part of your studies.


[00:12:23] Adam Brookes: That's right, ’84-‘85, which was an extraordinary moment to be there, because it was a moment when China opened 250 cities to individual travelers that had been shut for 30 years. Tibet was open to individual travelers too. And it was just an extraordinarily kind of optimistic and open moment that I was lucky to see. One could travel and speak freely in China in a way that, you know, hasn't been so easy at other times. 


[00:12:53] Mary Kay Magistad: Did you travel around quite a bit, take advantage of the fact that there were 250 cities open? 


[00:12:58] Adam Brookes: Oh, we sure did. We blew off our classes and just got on the train, and traveled all over the country. It was a wonderful, wonderful time, bumping through Tibet by truck and bus, going into little villages and towns in Sichuan and Yunnan that hadn't seen a foreigner in decades. It was an extraordinary moment. And yeah, when I got back to London to complete my degree course, it was in my mind that I wanted to go back. And I wanted to spend more time there. And that's, I think, why I ended up falling into journalism, like a lot of us did, because it was going to give me that opportunity. 


[00:13:34] Mary Kay Magistad: Yeah, and it's so apparent in your writing about different parts of China, where just the texture of description of the scenes and the weather and the way people act in daily life, it's the kind of thing that you observe when you're not in a rush, when you're not on a deadline, when you're traveling and you can spend time with people. And it's just such a great foundation to have been able to draw from in your work as a journalist. How did it feel then writing about China for the BBC, in terms of what you could, and maybe couldn't, do as much in using writing and, and particularly audio journalism as a way to connect people with the place? 


[00:14:18] Adam Brookes: Yeah, it was always, uh --  it was always challenging, China as a place for a reporter. When you and I were there, it was a lot easier to work in China than it is now. I have no end of respect for the reporters who are in China at the moment trying to function under the security state as it now behaves. I found with my editors, and with the BBC audience, that it was part of the same problem that we were just talking about before. It was always trying to persuade editors that they needed to take this story, that they needed to start pushing China up the agenda and up the news bulletins, and giving people a vocabulary to talk about it, giving them some core concepts to start using, to think about China. So the BBC was always insistent that it needed to do serious China coverage, and the resources were there, and the bureau was there, and the money was there, and the commitment was there. But when on the day it came to trying to persuade your editor, “this story should be on the news bulletin tonight, rather than that other story from America or India or France or somewhere.

You should run the China story today.” That was always a lot harder. They would always have a sense that stories from other parts of the world were more resonant and more urgent than those coming out of China. There's a sort of block, there's a kind of weird cultural block that prevents people from wanting to read or engage with the larger China story. And I found it in journalism, and I find it in writing too. And it really baffles me. It really puzzles me. I don't know quite where it resides or where it comes from or how one gets around it. 


[00:16:04] Mary Kay Magistad: Have you had conversations, like say in D.C., where you would think people would be paying attention to China, that have given you some hint as to why at least some people find it difficult to wrap their heads around China?


[00:16:20] Adam Brookes: Journalism out of China is quite hard work, not only to report, but also to read at the other end. If you're not familiar with Chinese at all, the names are very difficult. Pinyin, the way that we romanize Chinese into English, is hard to read. You know, what do you make of all these weird letters, ZHs and Qs and Xs and things, on the page? Place names are difficult to get hold of. I feel that many of us have not been educated into the basics of China: its geography, its location, its strategic geography, its interests, the nature of its economy, the structure of the state. People just don't have any of this vocabulary at their command. And so when we do talk about China, I think it's terribly important that we try to give people larger, graspable concepts that they can get hold of. 

I'm constantly surprised in Washington, D. C. at the sort of spectrum of knowledge about China. At one end, you have real subject matter experts in the State Department and the intelligence agencies and other parts of government, and in the think tanks. And then in other bits of government, and sometimes in Congress and in the legislature and in the corporations of business, we find people who are making serious decisions about China with really lacking even fundamental concepts about the place. And it's a constant source of surprise to me.


[00:17:52] Mary Kay Magistad: So you've talked about how it was difficult to persuade your editors that they should put China at the top of the news hour. How would you describe what it was like to be a journalist in China in the ‘90s? 


[00:18:05] Adam Brookes: In the ‘90s and early 2000s, I found it very challenging. The BBC was never a popular organization in China because it broadcast back to China in Chinese.


[00:18:20] Mary Kay Magistad: And also, there had been that story about the orphanages right around that time. 


[00:18:22] Adam Brookes: Which wasn't even a BBC story. This very, very critical story about orphanages in China that came out in the UK. The Chinese government got it into its head that the BBC had done this story. In fact, it wasn't. It was a different organization called Channel Four. And we suffered horribly because of that, for years. We were -- our access was denied, and we were all put on short term visas. And we never knew if we were going to be booted out or anything else. So you were always at the mercy of the state in weren't you? The state was always able to control how much freedom you had to move around the country, what sort of interviews you got. And that made it difficult. It made it difficult, particularly to respond to breaking news,  and to say anything meaningful really about the politics of China on a day-to-day basis. 

But the larger sense that here is a country that is discovering its own power. Here's a country that is reawakening to its own agency and abilities and is starting to imagine and design its own future. What will that future look like? What sort of indicators am I looking for? How do I look out things in China that have predictive value for where this country is going to go over the next couple of decades? That was fascinating. I mean, that was a really fascinating experience, trying to just find the larger elements of this massive economic and political story that was beginning to churn and demonstrate to us that here was a country really on the rise. That was a wonderful experience. 


[00:20:09] Mary Kay Magistad: And then to use sound and images in words to try to convey some of that in a fairly condensed form. I mean, audio journalism stories don't tend to be super long. Some stories can be longer. I'm wondering what writing for the ear taught you about writing in general that carried over to the cadence of your fiction and nonfiction.


[00:20:32] Adam Brookes: Oh, that's a really great question. And I've thought about this a lot. I think that writing for broadcast is a real help to longer narrative writing, and particularly to fiction writing, because the radio reporter and the television reporter are always walking into a room and listening really carefully for sound, for atmosphere. And the TV reporter, with their camera person, is always looking for the stark cinematic image for the sequence. So I think broadcast reporters have a kind of set of antennae going on that makes them very alert to, yeah, atmosphere. The tiny telling detail, the fall of light in a room, the way that somebody moves, the expression on someone's face, the look in their eyes, the timbre of their voice, the way that people speak. You know, all these things really matter for the radio reporter and the video journalist. And that's an enormous help for fiction writing because I think it just makes you more alert. And one of the real demands of fiction writing is the ability to spin atmosphere in that way, to show the reader things, to make the reader's imagination kind of rush in. And that, I think is very helpful.

In purely technical terms, in writing terms, broadcast writing is really great,  because it makes you write in the rhythms of speech. You have to be able to read it out loud, right? The radio reporter must read that. You're writing for the ear, not for the eye. And that means that again, for longer narrative writing, that's really, really useful, to write concisely with a single long line of thought, with good corner-turning and transitions, all the things that broadcast writers need to do, is very, very helpful for the fictional writer. There's no “paragraphing” in broadcast journalism. When you write for text, you write for a newspaper, you introduce a new topic with a paragraph. The writing breaks itself up naturally for the eye on the page. But you can't do that in broadcast writing. You have to create a long, single, contiguous line of thought. And that's a real writing skill that broadcast writing teaches you. 

And the last thing is, for the radio reporter particularly, there's never enough time on air, right? So you have to write very, very concisely. And that gets you into the habit of stripping out every word you don't need. And that's just a really good habit to be in anyway, I think, for any kind of writing. When I read newspapers, I often get very frustrated at the bagginess and the amount of pad I find in newspaper writing. When I listen to really good writing on NPR, for example, on Morning Edition or something, I'm always struck at how incredibly concise it is, how economical it is, and how they never waste a word. And I love that. I love listening to that. 


[00:23:40] Mary Kay Magistad: I found when I was reading both your fiction and nonfiction that it felt like you had thought about -- whether you were consciously doing it or not -- that you had thought about the cadence. And it's different in Fragile Cargo than in the trilogy, the spy novel trilogy.

The trilogy, it just propels you forward. And in Fragile Cargo, it felt like it was inviting you in, almost into an interior space where you could be sitting there quietly in the Forbidden City with the Emperor, looking through the priceless artifacts that had been accumulated over the centuries. How much were you aware that you were doing that when you were writing? 


[00:24:22] Adam Brookes: Yeah. You're talking about voice. And voice is, I mean, all writing's hard. I find it, all of it, really difficult. But voice is perhaps one of the hardest things to develop. And in my fiction writing, in my spy novels, the voice I was looking for, yeah, was jagged, cinematic, propulsive. I want your eye to be kind of flicking around the room, and I want you to feel a little bit jittery and alert, as if you are an intelligence operative on the streets of a foreign city under surveillance. I want to try and get that adrenaline-driven sense into the voice of the book. One of the ways that I do that, and I overdid it, is was with sentence fragments. I love sentence fragments. Other people don't. My wife really hates them. She's my first editor, and it would drive her crazy. And she’d red- pen all my sentence fragments. My editors accepted the need for sentence fragments, but said I had way overdone it. And so, I had to take a lot of those out and smooth out the prose a lot in the editing. 

When it came to writing narrative non-fiction, particularly writing history, then obviously, I mean, the voice needs to be different. And in narrative nonfiction, the point of view of the writer is also different.

You're an author writing to an external reference, which is history and primary sources. And so one needs to have a more moderated, thoughtful voice than that which one would use in a kind of propulsive spy novel. So yes, it took me a -- really took me a while to try and figure out how to write narrative non-fiction, to write Fragile Cargo in that way, and to end up with a voice that I hope works and is consistent.


[00:26:22] Mary Kay Magistad: So going back to Night Heron, the plot starts out with an escape from a detention camp in Western China by a Chinese man who goes by many names, including Peanut, which is probably easier for  a non-Chinese reader to remember than his real name. So he spent 20 years detained there. Before that, he was a spy for the British government.

And in an attempt to reconnect with his old handlers, he approaches a British journalist, Philip Mangan, outside the diplomatic compound where Mangan lives and works. The publicity for the book says it was inspired by a true event. What was that event?


[00:26:58] Adam Brookes: I was in the BBC bureau in Beijing one Sunday afternoon. It was my turn to do weekend call duty. And I was just about to pack up and go home when there was a knock at the door, and I opened it up to find an elderly Chinese gentleman carrying a briefcase. And he insisted on coming in and showing me documents that he had in this briefcase that were classified. They weren't at a very high level of classification in the Chinese system. They were nei bu documents, which is the lowest level of classification, but certainly things that foreign journalists should not be looking at. And he tried to get me to accept these documents. Rule number one, when a journalist in China, do not accept classified documents from people who try to give them to you.

So I took a look at them and I handed them back. And I wouldn't take them from him. He was very persistent. He kept coming back over the next couple of weeks and trying to get me to accept more classified material. And in the end, he asked to be introduced to people at the British embassy. And, you know, I'm fairly sure that this was the Chinese security services trying to provoke me to accept classified material as a provocation, yeah? It's not uncommon. I'm not the only person that that's happened to. It's happened to many reporters in China over the years. It used to happen in the Soviet Union as well a lot. So that episode sort of stayed with me and I dwelled on it a bit. And I just started imagining, “ what actually if it hadn't just been a provocation of the authorities? What if that elderly gentleman had actually been trying, in a clumsy and naive way, to make contact with British intelligence because he wanted to pass information to become an asset of British intelligence in China? From there, I started spinning a story in my own mind about this elderly man, which turned into Night Heron.


[00:29:02] Mary Kay Magistad: Hmm. So journalists have factored into more than one spy novel in the past. In fact, journalists have written spy novels over time. And the Chinese government and some other governments assume there are at least some ties between foreign journalists and their governments, sometimes even between journalists and their government's intelligence agencies. What do you think the Chinese government and other governments need to understand about what the relationship actually is? 


[00:29:31] Adam Brookes: They need to understand that in the big legacy media organizations like the BBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, there's a great deal of care taken that the reporters of those organizations are not in any way beholden to the intelligence agencies.

The BBC has long had a firm agreement with the intelligence agencies that they will be hands off BBC reporters. It didn't used to be that  way. I think back in the middle of the 20th century, plenty of reporters did have links to the intelligence agencies. Western governments began to realize that this wasn't a good idea, because an independent media is a much more reliable and useful thing to have than a few journalists-come-spies. And it's very important that media organizations maintain their integrity in that way. So there was a policy, my understanding, from the sort of 1950s, 1960s onwards, that the spooks would leave the big legacy media organizations alone, and would not attempt to recruit their reporters.

I have a sense that over the last 15 years maybe, that around the fringes of new media, the situation is no longer so clear cut anymore, and that there are people out there being reporters by day and something else by night, whether they're being influencers or activists or people who peddle disinformation or agents of influence, one might refer to them as, that the lines out there in this sort of rather corrupted, degraded information environment that exists out there today, these lines are becoming blurred once again, and that journalism and intelligence work, particularly information operations and influence operations, are once again becoming sort of all mixed up together. And I think that's a really worrying trend. 


[00:31:29] Mary Kay Magistad: Yeah, that's a really interesting observation. So Philip Mangan is himself a freelancer in your novels, but wasn't a freelancer at a time of widespread use of social media and where, as you say, there are influencers, small ‘i’, in social media who also consider themselves activists, advocates. I taught journalism for a few years and I remember students coming in -- this was 2017, ‘18, ’19 – and they were saying, “what's wrong with being an advocate as a journalist?” I’m like, “well, then that’s primarily what you are. When you're a journalist, people on the receiving end would like to think that they're hearing your best attempt to understand a more complicated picture, as opposed to coming in with your own opinion and finding facts to support that opinion.” And they're like, “well, that's just old fashioned.” So, I think we're in the middle of a generational change that way, not across the board, but at least there are members of the younger generation who don't really see the need to practice journalism the way we did. 


[00:32:33] Adam Brookes: Yeah, I certainly get that sense too. And I don't have any solution to any of this. But when I've had those conversations, I guess I've tried to remind people who argue that, that it's okay to be an advocate, that it's natural, that doctrines of impartiality are obsolete, they're gone, they're no longer able to cope with and contend with the information environment that we now inhabit, I try to remind them that the beating heart of journalism, real journalism, is about new information. It's about finding stuff out. Really good journalism, and the way that your story will always have impact, is if it contains new information. If you've actually found something out that other organizations don't know, and your readers don't know, that still has power and it has reach. And a great deal of opinion journalism, every “hot take” journalism that we are swamped in now on the internet, doesn't do that. It doesn't give us new facts, new information. And we're the worse off for that, for sure. 


[00:33:41] Mary Kay Magistad: Yeah. Have you imagined members of the Chinese government, maybe the Ministry of State Security, reading your novels? 


[00:33:48] Adam Brookes: Oh God, don't. (Laughs)

Mary Kay Magistad: What do you think they’d make of them?


Adam Brooks: I hate to think. Uh. I would like to think that they would read it, and they would see a writer trying to write realistically about China and its security state. I am the sort of spy writer who likes to think about -- I'm not a fan of the heroic mode. I'm not a fan of stories that are titanic clashes between right and wrong and good and evil. I like to write about a thousand shades of gray. And I would like to think that my portrayal of the Chinese intelligence services is one that at least does them the credit of seeing them as professionals, in their own way, who are working in the interests of their country as they see it, and as they are instructed to do. The spies in my novels are intelligence professionals getting on with their job, for the most part, whether they're Chinese or British or American or Ethiopian or anybody else's. I try to portray the spooks as I understand the way that they really do work. I try to mirror reality as far as I can, in as much as I'm standing outside. I've never worked for an intelligence agency. I've never seen inside. But I've tried very hard to get a sense of what those guys in the Ministry of State Security in China actually do. And I've tried to represent it, I hope, in a way that at least has some integrity to it.


[00:35:33] Mary Kay Magistad: And it comes across, for instance, in Spy Games where the spy on the Chinese side is saying, “well, look at all that we're doing here (in Ethiopia). We're building roads. We're putting up telephone lines. We're connecting people. What are you Americans doing?” And actually, also in that novel, I pulled a quote here that I thought captured something that I could also see you doing as a journalist. It says: “Everything flows through Addis, power, diplomacy, ideas, influence. The African renaissance does start here, underwritten by China. They are building not just roads and railways, but the real thing, the future infrastructure networks, the arteries of power in the 21st century.” And in focus in this book is a company called China National Century,  the world's largest telecoms manufacturer, which sounds more than a little bit like the real life company, Huawei. 


Adam Brookes:  You think?


Mary Kay Magistad:  And I'm wondering -- you said you wanted to kind of weave in themes that spy novels are so good at allowing to be woven into a tight, taut, powerful narrative. What do you think is important for readers, whether it's of journalism or of a novel like this one of yours, to understand about what's at play in Africa right now?


[00:36:48] Adam Brookes: Yeah. So the second novel, Spy Games, was my attempt to look at kind of the nature of Chinese power in the world, and to maybe smuggle into the spy novel some of these ideas about how China was trying at the time that I wrote it, to build out its presence, political and economic, across the African continent. And I decided to look at Ethiopia. It was 2015. So I chose to go to Ethiopia, partly because it's an easy country to get into and to travel around, and also partly because the Chinese presence there was very, very pronounced. And they were starting these enormous infrastructure projects, especially in rail and in digital infrastructure. Chinese companies were building these microwave transmitters all over the country: 5,000 kilometers of rail line, hospitals, a light rail system in the capital Addis Ababa. So it wasn't hard just to go there and look at what China's presence in Africa looked like on the ground, to actually see it. And my purpose was to give the reader a feeling for how this massive dynamic economy is attempting to alter the global political and economic landscape in its favor, particularly in the Global South.

And the Chinese were working very, very hard at their presence on the ground. They had extremely culturally literate people there, people who were speaking Amharic, lots of young people who are very open to new cultural experiences. They were very friendly. They were doing very well with the local population. And I was struck by how this hard economic and political power was being matched by soft power, a new kind of soft power. power. Ethiopians were starting to watch Chinese TV. They were starting to watch CGTN. They were starting to watch Chinese drama series on the TV. They were all wearing Chinese jeans and Chinese t shirts. You know, stuff was really beginning to happen there. And I wanted to try and bring this alive, and make it interesting for a Western audience and a reader, rather than doing it through dry journalism, telling stories about it.


[00:39:04] Mary Kay Magistad: And had you reported there before?


[00:39:07] Adam Brookes: No, never heard. No. 


[00:39:09] Mary Kay Magistad: So you really captured the place.

I mean, I've reported there a few times over time and most recently in 2019. And you just have a really great eye for detail, for being able to make a place come to life in your writing. My last time there in 2019 was when I was doing a series on called On China's New Silk Road. And Ethiopia was the place that had the most positive view of what China was doing of any place I reported in a dozen countries around the world. But already, then, there was a little trepidation among Ethiopian economists that the debt overhang was becoming serious, and it became more so to the extent that Prime Minister Abiy wrote an op ed in The New York Times saying “we're in the midst of COVID. We can't repay the debt. It's coming up too quickly.” Zambia ended up defaulting. So you always pay the piper at some point.


[00:40:04] Adam Brookes: One hears that this has been a story repeated elsewhere, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, that these efforts have somewhat gone sour. But still, the economic problems notwithstanding, China has sort of inserted itself into the imagination of large chunks of the Global South in a way that it didn't used to be there. And now, I think, smart people across the African continent, they are not naive. They are full of agency. They know full well that, as you say, they have to pay the piper. And yet, when they look at the future, they are now conscious that Europe and the United States are not the only alternatives. When they look into the medium term, 10, 15, 20, 30 years down the road, this is a world that's become a little bit more multipolar, that China's presence is a real durable thing in the imagination of the Global South now. 


[00:41:00] Mary Kay Magistad: Yeah, I think that's a fair point and an important one. I just, I think certain African governments have calibrated a little bit, like “maybe let's diversify where we're getting our investment from, and loans and so forth, so that we're not quite as vulnerable to pressure or being put in a position that that's not sustainable.”

I've been impressed as I've read your books with how much meticulous research goes into them, how much time you must have spent nailing down the technical details in the spy novels and getting the details of historical accuracy right in Fragile Cargo. There are single sentences that feel hard- earned in terms of the research needed to have confidently stated what's in that simple sentence. And indeed, a Washington Post review of Night Heron said the plot plays out against a portrait of life in China that feels more like fact than fiction, going back to that, your first novel. It certainly does evoke, in great detail, a Beijing and China I knew over the 15 years I lived there. I'm wondering, did you keep a journal or very detailed notes as you went along, or do you just have an extraordinarily good visual memory?


[00:42:16] Adam Brookes: You're being very generous here. You have to remember that fiction is made up. I mean, it's all made up. 


[00:42:24] Mary Kay Magistad: And yet it felt familiar. It felt like, oh yeah, I've seen places like that.


[00:42:28] Adam Brookes: That’s the trick of it. It's almost a sort of illusion. One is trying to make the reader have a sense of the real, you know, even though it's a product of my imagination. And a lot of the spycraft -- sure, I spent a lot of time talking to people who've been in the business, and reading a lot of very dry stuff out of the intelligence community, and trying to get a handle on real spy cases that I could sort of mash up and use to reflect reality, as we were talking about a little bit earlier. But in the end, it is all made up. 


[00:43:01] Mary Kay Magistad: And yet draws from your experience.


[00:43:04] Adam Brookes: Yeah, it does. It does. I didn't keep a journal. I suppose maybe I do have a good sort of sense memory in that way. I don't know. Things lodge in my mind and they stay there. And the wonderful thing about all forms of writing, but especially fiction writing is it gives you somewhere to put things, stuff that you've remembered, stuff that you've half glimpsed and sometimes understood, not understood, stuff that lingers in your imagination. It gives you something to do with it. And the more you do it, the more stuff gets dredged up, I find. 


[00:43:35] Mary Kay Magistad: So you made a decision after writing three spy novels in just a few years that you were wrapping up the Philip Mangan story. Why? 


[00:43:46] Adam Brookes: Because I didn't want him to be like on his 17th novel and, you know, still walking down that dark alley. Originally it was a stand-alone novel. And the publishers wanted it to be a series of three. 

So when I'd written Night Heron in its first draft, it was a stand-alone novel, and the whole story was wrapped up at the end. The publishers insisted that they wanted two sequels. So I had to rewrite the entire ending. People had to come back to life. People who had been redeemed had to be unredeemed.

I had to unpick the whole ending of the novel and leave it open so that I could go on to write two sequels. But that was enough. In the real world of spying, you have a limited shelf life before you're blown and everybody knows who you are. Young operatives in the intelligence world are the ones who do most of the work, because people don't know who they are.

As you go on, people learn your identity and you're no longer so useful. So I wanted the structure of the novels to reflect that. This had to be a story with a single arc, wrapped up after three novels, or it would just start to feel even more implausible.


[00:44:58] Mary Kay Magistad: Yeah. So, you moved on to looking at how a bunch of dedicated curators from the Forbidden City Museum moved hundreds of thousands of priceless treasures around China for 16 years during World War II, which is a little implausible as a story itself, and yet true.


[00:45:12] Adam Brookes: That really -- in a career in journalism or in writing, a big story like that, that hasn't been done in English, that nobody else has tackled, really only comes along once or twice in a career, I think. So when I realized that nobody had done a treatment of this extraordinary story that's pretty well known in China and in Taiwan, and there's quite a lot written about it, but nobody had really tackled it in earnest in English, I felt that was just an opportunity that was too good to be true. So I felt that I needed to give that a go, even though it meant shifting away from fiction writing and jumping into non-fiction writing, a complete sort of, you know, career dogleg. But I'm very glad I did it.


[00:46:00] Mary Kay Magistad: Was it, though? Or did you feel that you were drawing from some of what you learned writing the novels when you wrote this book? Because it feels like even though the cadence is different, the tone is different, the ability to pull a reader along, the ability to paint an evocative scene, to have the whole arc be fluid and connected, is there, even in this work of nonfiction.


[00:46:24] Adam Brookes: I'm sure that particularly in things like pacing, having written fiction was a help to me. Absolutely. I had a more developed sense of how you just make a narrative move forward. But in terms of a career as a commercial writer, you know, you're supposed to stick with one thing, really. 


Mary Kay Magistad: But what fun is that? 


Adam Brookes: Yeah, what fun is that? So it was a bit of a career choice to write a non-fiction book. But yes, surely, my China experience in fiction writing certainly helped me. Yeah, for sure. 


[00:46:56] Mary Kay Magistad: So Fragile Cargo Is about these curators and their ingenuity and their bravery, but it's really also about all that China endured during the 1930s and ‘40s: Japanese occupation and attacks, war and political upheaval. What do you hope a reader takes away from this book? 


[00:47:13] Adam Brookes: Well, partly just the extraordinary story in itself, the packing up of a quarter of a million objects and books from the Forbidden City in the early 1930s, their movement all over war-torn China, up rivers, over mountain ranges, through burning cities, their storage. And the people who did this, the museum curators, the art historians, I want you to meet these people. I want you to get to know the people who did it. 

The larger, sort of unspoken hope of the book was to try and get people to see modern Chinese history beyond the Communist Party. When I learned Chinese and when I studied Chinese history at university, as we all had to a little bit, when I studied Chinese politics at university, the only thing that mattered, in all the teaching I encountered, was the rise of the Chinese Communist Party and the rise of Chairman Mao. That was the dominant narrative of 20th century Chinese history. And later in life, as I've gone on, I've begun to feel that that's rather misleading. A lot of other stuff happened too in 20th century China. And if we seek to understand the origins of where we are today, the origins of where the Communist Party is today, we need to look at this other stuff.

And the Republic of China, this extraordinary interlude from the end of Imperial China in 1911 through to 1949, the Second World War in China, is a huge, chaotic, colorful, intricate, complex story that shows us a China, or shows us many Chinas, that could have been, and shows us a China that was much more outward-looking, much more experimental, much more cosmopolitan than the China that we know today under Communism.

And I think we need to understand, just as no one would attempt to learn the history of Western Europe without understanding the outcome of the Second World War, well, the same is true in East Asia. There's no way you can possibly understand contemporary East Asia without understanding the outcome of the Second World War -- not the end of colonialism, not Vietnam, not Indonesia, not the Korean Peninsula, and certainly not China. Everything goes back to the end of World War II. We need to have a stronger grasp of what happened to China in the Second World War, and how it affected the country, in order to understand where we are today. I really do think that. And yet, we in Europe and the United States almost entirely ignore China's World War II, and China's contribution to World War II. It's almost entirely absent from the historiography. So my larger aim in the book was to try to bring to life, a little bit, the period of Republican China and China's Second World War, and just try and poke the reader into thinking beyond Communist China as the sole framework for understanding modern Chinese history. Does that make any sense? 


[00:50:27] Mary Kay Magistad: It makes a lot of sense. The Communist Party wouldn't agree with you, because they like to say “the people and the Communist Party are one.” But it's true that China contains many, many individuals and many truths all at one time. What are some of your favorite books, or just books about China, fiction or nonfiction, recent or archival that helped you better understand all that China is?


[00:50:54] Adam Brookes: Wow. There are so many. There are so many, where would I start? There have been books that I've read in Chinese as part of my university studies and that I've struggled through later on, that have been very important to me. Certain bits of Chinese literature, Wei Cheng by the novelist Qian Zhongshu, normally translated in English as A Fortress Besieged, was a very important novel for me. The writing of Lu Xun. Reading classical Chinese poetry, reading the poems of poets like the Tang poet Bai Juyi and Li Shangyin.


[00:51:30] Mary Kay Magistad: Which you weave into your writing.


[00:51:32] Adam Brookes: Which I quote, yeah.. In English, what would I point to? It's very difficult to choose. Orville Schell's Wealth and Power, the writing of Jonathan Spence. I studied politics under Stuart Schramm. Schramm's biography of Mao was very important to me, Linda Jaivin's wonderful book The Shortest History of China is a fantastic place for anybody to start reading Chinese history, and a great place for those of us who have read some Chinese history to go back and reread it. The writing of Steve Platt on the late Qing and on the Taiping War is magisterial. It's perhaps the writing that I respect most of all Chinese history writing that I've read in English, I think. I have learned a huge amount from the writing of Geremie Barme, particularly his writing on the internet in the China Heritage Quarterly. There has been some great writing about World War II in China, the writing of Diana Lary on the social history of China in the Second World War, Rana Mitter's wonderful book on World War II, Peter Harmsen's military histories of World War II. These are all terrific books, and they do give us the tools, you know. The tools are there for us to build a much more complex, well developed, critical judgment about China and what China is today. You know, it's just up to us to do the work. 


[00:53:08] Mary Kay Magistad: So you've written about China as a journalist, as a novelist, and as a historian. What's next? 


[00:53:16] Adam Brookes: I’m back to the spy novels. (Laughs)


Mary Kay Magistad: Really? 


Adam Brooks: Yeah, yeah. I'm back to fiction. I'm embarking on another, on some more espionage fiction. 


[00:53:26] Mary Kay Magistad: But Philip Mangan is gone, this is a new chapter?


[00:53:28] Adam Brookes: Philip Mangan is no more. This is a new chapter. This will be something different. Yeah. 


[00:53:33] Mary Kay Magistad: Is it going to take as long as it takes, or do you have a timeline in mind? 


[00:53:37] Adam Brookes: I wish I were a quicker writer. I wish I were a more disciplined, less dilatory writer. It'll take as long as it takes, I'm afraid. 


[00:53:46] Mary Kay Magistad: Nice to have that luxury, right, after the deadlines of journalism for years?


[00:53:50] Adam Brookes: It's great until you actually get a publishing contract. And then deadlines really come to life, and they take on a whole horror of their own all over again. So yeah. No, that awaits. 


[00:54:01] Mary Kay Magistad: Well, Adam Brookes, it's been such a pleasure chatting with you. Thank you.


[00:54:04] Adam Brookes: Thank you. Mary Kay, thanks so much.

It's been great to be here.



[00:54:12] Mary Kay Magistad: That's Adam Brookes, author of the spy novels Night Heron, Spy Games, and The Spy’s Daughter and of the narrative nonfiction thriller Fragile Cargo, the World War II Race to Save the Treasures of China's Forbidden City

If you want to take a closer look at all those China books Adam recommended, visit the China Books Review website at You'll find those books listed on the notes accompanying this episode, along with the transcript of our conversation. 

While you're there, check out the many excellent essays, interviews, book reviews, and more, curated by editor Alec Ash with help from assistant editor Taili Ni. 

The China Books Review is co-published by The Wire China, led by David Barboza, and by Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, led by Orville Schell, with me as deputy director. I'm also the producer of this podcast. 

If you've got an idea for a future episode, shoot me an email at If you like the podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and most other podcast apps. And if you're feeling really generous, leave a review. It helps others find the podcast. 

Thanks for listening. See you next time on the first Tuesday of the month. Meanwhile, happy reading.


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