China Hand by Scott Spacek is a highly-recommended suspense/thriller told by Andrew Callahan, a fresh young Harvard graduate on a one year teaching stint in a Chinese university before joining a prestigious global consulting firm.
Almost immediately Andrew is attracted to and begins a relationship with Lily, the Dean’s assistant, who also happens to be an Army General’s daughter. Shortly afterwards, Andrew is approached to help the CIA extract a Lily and so is effectively recruited into the CIA with all the risks associated with detection and capture that that entails.
While the plot is initially set in and near the university in Beijing, we are given fleeting glimpses of the colourful local culture as Andrew explores occasional nightclub, restaurant and a boxing club. The setting though is primarily the politically- and culturally-charged university in which USA and by extension ‘all Americans’ are vilified. As anti-USA protests due to USA’s bombing the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade build, Lily’s escape becomes a matter of urgency.
I read the latterhalf of this book in one sitting because the pace picked up significantly and the story quickly turned into an action-suspense-thriller as Andrew helped Lily escape from the university. They soon met with Lily’s mother, whose escape had been helped by another US university teacher/CIA agent and friend of Andrew. Their escape plan was discovered almost immediately forcing them off-script. This involved a long van ride, a plane trip, a train trip, a street chase followed by a shoot-out in a shopping mall, separation from Lily and her mother, and ultimately a high-tension boarding of a ferry to Korea. That’s certainly not where the story ended, but because this is a suspense, I’ll stop there.
The 1980s were a grim time in China, especially if you were an American living and working there and the story reflects that. Nonetheless, I felt the author didn’t give me enough of the exotic culture and setting. There were brief references to eating in restaurants and navigating the city and the air pollution but these were too brief, in my opinion.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading a fast-paced novel written in the first-person because it ‘sounded’ like I was being told the story by the one person who could tell it the best, the protagonist. This adds to the story’s authenticity and credibility. The relationship between Andrew and Lily felt genuine and the danger associated with their capture while running from the Chinese authorities felt more urgent for the story being told in the first person. (I wish there were more thrillers written in the first person.)
I wholly recommend China Hand to those who enjoy a fast and thrilling read with a snappy finish.