Is China the perfect setting for crime and spy thrillers?

From left, A Yi, his translator, Adam Brookes and Paul French at the event 'Licence to Thrill' held during the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

From left, A Yi, his translator, Adam Brookes and Paul French, at the event 'Licence to Thrill' held during the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

Is China the perfect setting for crime and spy thrillers?

03 June 2015

By Naomi Canton

Is China the perfect setting for a crime thriller or an international espionage thriller? According to a former Chinese policeman and a former BBC journalist in China it is.

Canada-born British former BBC journalist Adam Brookes claims to have had real-life experience of the Chinese espionage world during his tenure working for the BBC in Beijing, which inspired his fictional spy thriller Night Heron (2014).

Meanwhile Chinese policeman-turned-writer A Yi (real name Ai Guozhu) says a growing Western-style “ennui in modern Chinese society” inspired his noir existentialist novel A Perfect Crime (published in Chinese as Xiamian Wo Gai Ganxie Shenme in 2012 and published as A Perfect Crime in English in 2015). He felt that China was therefore the perfect setting for books like his.

The duo were speaking at the ‘A Licence to Thrill’ event held during the 2015 Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival.

Brookes, the former China correspondent for the BBC, now a journalist based in Washington DC, said: “I was by myself in the BBC Bureau in Beijing one Sunday and about to go home when a man knocked on the door and offered me two secret documents in Chinese.” Brookes said he declined. A couple of weeks later he same man returned with more secret documents.

“He said he had this information relating to satellite images and he wanted me to take them and show them to the British Embassy. I am pretty sure that that was a dangler to see if I was a British intelligence officer working undercover as a journalist in China,” Brookes said.

This same story appears in his first novel Night Heron.

“But the character in the book does not send him away,” Brookes revealed to the audience.

Adam Brookes, left and Paul French, right

Adam Brookes, left and Paul French, right, at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

When asked by author Paul French, of Midnight in Peking fame, who was moderating the discussion, how he had so much inside information on the world on spies and whether MI6 had ever tried to recruit him, he said: “I have never been a spy or engaged with intelligence at all. In fact British intelligence is not allowed to target the BBC as it is seen as not constitutional as it is funded by the public. Journalists from other organisations – they have been targeted though,” he confided to the audience.

“I have taken real spy cases and mashed them up so I am confident what really happens in my novel mirrors the reality,” he said.

Night Heron is a spy novel set in Beijing and forms the first book in a planned trilogy. The book is about various people caught up in espionage, covering the risks of espionage and betrayal, giving a vivid portrait of life in China.

“There is a huge espionage effort directed against China by Western countries especially the UK and USA,” Brookes,  who read Chinese with Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, said. “It is really quite shocking the amount of spying going on. Western spy agencies are using online chat rooms to recruit Chinese people to go out and spy for them and using Westerners they trust, as access agents, to communicate with the Chinese agents. So I think China and Asia as a whole are fantastic places for spy novels to look at these themes like betrayal and the individual contract with the state,” he said.

Brookes then went on to explain how he crafted the novel. French said there was strong sense of place in Brookes’ book with many vivid descriptions of street scenes in Beijing.

“You have to build an imagined world that coheres to itself,” Brookes explained. “The only thing that really matters is if the book works on its own terms. I describe the smell of cooking kebabs on the street, the dust, the car headlights – all that was there but the real skill is in imagining a world. You have to create a coherent universe – it does not matter if it is accurate or not.

“Food is a great way to connect with a reader. If you drip Chinese food into a scene people love it – it gives you that visceral connection,” he added.

Brookes said he hoped 20 to 30 year olds would read the trilogy. “I think in commercial fiction genres are getting way more flexible. Genres are not as rigid as we think and it fun to bust them. Think of William Boyd whose books have an espionage flavour but also about much deeper issues,” he went on.

Chinese author A Yi who writes crime novels in an existentialist nihilistic, noir dark style of writing, with an unsentimental view of the world, flew over for the event.

Speaking through a translator, he said he was influenced by Camus, Kafka and Taxi Driver director Martin Scorsese.

He said Perfect Crime was about a Chinese person feeling separated from society. The book explores existentialism and nihilism, as well as criminal mind.

“The main character feels disconnected from society so he decides to play a game of cat and mouse with the police,” A Yi said. “He decides that if he kills someone and the police chase him, his life will have meaning. The main character is also worried that if he does not kill the right victim the police won’t chase him so he has to kill someone that society will be empathetic to.

“In the West there is a lot of ennui about modern society and people feel that is increasing in China too. The book is based on a true case and the reason that this man killed someone is because he could already tell how his entire life would play out and he could see how it would end – it was so depressing for him to know what would happen,” he added.

It is for that reason he feels China is a perfect setting his kind of dark books.

A Yi, left and his translator, right

A Yi, left and his translator, right, at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

He also spoke about the key to making his novels a success.

French remarked on the pace of the book being excellent. “It’s a real page turner even though we know he will get caught,” he said.

“I worked very hard on the dialogue and I think it’s important to try and use as few words as possible to achieve what you want,” A Yi explained. “In every dialogue you need to show the identity and the personality of the character. When I work on dialogue I often think of Hemingway and if I get stuck I read him. Sometimes you can make dialogue richer in Chinese.  Typically policemen are brusque in China as they feel self-important so I bring this out in how they speak,” he said.

A Yi explained why the protagonist of his book does not have a name. “I was worried the story would spread too far so by not giving him a name it made it harder to talk about him. I don’t want too many people to know about the book so people do not copy my character,” he said.

He then spoke about how one of the struggles he faced as a full-time writer was not having a boss.  “I am now a full-time novelist but earlier I was a part-time writer and policeman. Whenever I have not written enough I have a sickening feeling in my stomach and I can’t sleep at night and feel like I have wasted a whole bunch of money. I asked for information for my book but my colleagues in the police would not give any. I have written about all my experiences as a policeman so in the future will I write stories told to me by friends or perhaps write non fiction,” he added

Come and  listen to award-winning photographer and cultural anthropologist Jo Farrell talk about the lives of some of the last remaining women with bound feet in China at Asia House on Monday 15 June. A tradition started in the Song Dynasty, it was originally banned in 1911. However, it continued in rural areas until around 1949. Despite being considered barbaric, it was a tradition that enabled women to find a suitable partner. During her talk at Asia House, Farrell will discuss the 50 + women she has met and photographed and how foot binding has impacted their lives throughout the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution, To book tickets click here.

To read the other stories on the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival click here.