The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry

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The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry

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Category: Thrillers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Steve Shayler
Reviewed by Steve Shayler
Summary: This is a story of espionage that feels entirely rooted in the real world rather than the fantastic and over the top, it is intelligent, methodical and thoroughly absorbing.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: July 2013
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 978-1781855096

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Our narrator is an American sleeper spy in China whose mission is to improve his Mandarin and attempt to blend as best he can into Shanghai society. A chance meeting results in an intelligent and enigmatic Chinese lover who becomes his perfect teacher even though he is pretty sure she is working for Guoanbu (Chinese Intelligence) and that he is constantly under surveillance. In time he infiltrates known affiliates of the Guoanbu and proves himself very valuable to both the US and Chinese intelligence services, becoming a pawn in a high stakes game of chess between two powerful and paranoid nations.

This is not a blockbuster action spy thriller kind of story with gunfights, car chases and debonair arrogant spies who are happy to make a scene; this is about one man with a skill for foreign languages ingratiating himself into positions where he may be useful to the CIA. I don't want to say too much about the storyline but there are revelations and plot twists as the narrator falls in and out of favour with very powerful people. The whole story is written in a very to-the-point first-person narration that has no frills and perfectly fits the subject matter and the character. He comes across as thoughtful, intelligent and incredibly wary; where we see a crowd of people he sees individuals and surveillance teams and acts accordingly, never appearing to act suspiciously or even be aware that he is being tailed.

The Shanghai Factor is a slow moving but at all times gripping novel, that despite its lack of action is a truly riveting read. The narrator is not an action hero who at any opportunity pulls out a gun or his martial arts skills; he feels incredibly realistic and the narration feels like a genuine account of one man’s life of espionage in the east. Even a trained assassin character within the story does more cooking and mundane daily chores than killing and again the result is a very well realised story that clearly benefits from the author's experience as a CIA operations officer.

Charles McCarry is compared favourably to John le Carré and although having never read le Carré this is clearly huge praise. I grew up with le Carré books at home, my Dad being a big fan, and I now regret that they never appealed to me at the time. My understanding is that they are very realistic and tense novels in much the same vein as The Shanghai Factor and having now read how a spy thriller should be written I know I will read more. I loved the understated nature of the book and the paranoia induced throughout, it created an atmosphere that perfectly complimented the simple but gripping storyline.

If there is a negative to the story it is the ending, which although wrapping things up well feels a bit flat. The finale is built up well and the closing chapters maintain their realistic feel but the final chapter seems rather abrupt and isn’t appropriately explained; it works but it isn’t of the same calibre as the preceding pages.

Overall this is a great read that is absorbing, genuine and atmospheric and has left me wanting more of the same. I will be looking up more novels by the same author and more of a genre I haven’t given enough time to. This is what a spy thriller should be and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

I would like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For another incredibly well received spy novel try The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre I certainly will be.

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Buy The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry at


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