I loved Our Friends in Beijing – from the snappy beginning with its colourful and clever turns of phrase, to the intriguing plot, the exciting chase and the surprisingly emotional ending… best read of 2021.
Jon Swift (the protagonist of Simpson’s earlier novel) is nearing the end of his journalism career, elbowed out by his younger, corporate managers. Immediately after being given his notice, Jon coincidentally meets an old friend, Lin Lifang, in Oxford who asks him to pass on a coded message. Jon first met Lin Lifang during the Tiananmen Square incident although now he is a well-connected and well-remunerated senior party member with a daughter studying in Oxford.
Jon maneuvres a last assignment out of his bosses, an investigation in China, accompanied by his producer Alyssa. What follows is a complex web of surveillance, rough-ups and shake-downs by the State Security staff, the police in China, Lin Lifang’s heavies, and Lin Lifang’s wife’s staff. (I said it was complex.) Needless to say, British ‘Intelligence’ is also involved – watching Jon and Alyssa and advising, without actually helping. Jon and Alyssa’s primary story is the rise and rise of Lin Lifang within the Party and the possibility of a leadership coup. As smoke screens (perhaps) they also chase stories relating to the Uighyrs and live-animal trafficking ex-Africa. As the coup approaches, it becomes clearer that Lin Lifang is using Jon to disseminate misinformation to the international community as well as to the State Security officials.
The coup attempt fails, the State Security close in on Jon and Alyssa, they escape, we’re treated to a wonderful vignette from the Gorbachov era, an exciting chase scene plays out and ends in tragedy for Jon. British spooks extract Jon from the clutches of the State Security and he makes a hero’s return to the newsroom where his nemesis (nemses) are clearing their desks following another corporate shake up – giving me hope for another episode of adventure and exquisite story-telling.
I really enjoyed reading this; it had everything I want in book – likable characters I can cheer for, evil enemies, intrigue, a twisty plot, an evocative ending that I didn’t see coming, and all extremely well-written.