Night Heron started with a knock at the door. Adam Brookes, then the BBC’s China correspondent, was alone at the corporation’s bureau in Beijing one Sunday afternoon when he had an unexpected visitor. An elderly Chinese man, wearing a flat cap and a blue jacket, pulled two documents marked “neibu” (or “internal”) from his briefcase and offered them to Brookes. “The rule is, in China and countries like China, if someone tries to give you very sensitive material you can look at it, you can even make notes on it but you can never keep it. It’s a big mistake to be in possession of stuff like that.” So Brookes politely declined.
Two weeks later his visitor was back, with more secret documents, and this time he was more persistent. “He said he wanted to be introduced to who he called ‘the right people’ at the British Embassy, meaning British Intelligence,” Brookes recalls. And when his visitor started talking about experimental satellite launches and re-entry technology, warning bells started to ring: “The minute you hear those words, you know somebody is talking about missile technology. Even I knew that. These were serious military secrets that he was purporting to possess.” Alarmed, Brookes escorted the Chinese man out and told him never to contact him again.
Brookes heard no more from his mysterious visitor: “I’m pretty sure this was a test, a ‘dangle’, somebody from the Chinese security apparatus pushing this guy at me to see if I would bite, to see if I would accept the secret documents. They would then either know I was an intelligence operative just posing as a journalist or they would have something against me, something they could hold over me.”
But Brookes found that the encounter nagged at him. “It wouldn’t leave me alone and I suddenly thought maybe there is a story here.” The result, 10 years after that knock at the door, is his début novel Night Heron (Sphere, March), a gripping espionage thriller.
Night Heron opens in remote north-west China with Prisoner 5995 escaping from a brutal labour camp and barely surviving a desert crossing to freedom.
But Prisoner 5995, also known as Peanut, is a survivor—bullet-headed and stocky with muscle—who has kept his silence during 20 years of hard labour. Now he wants what he is owed. Pitching up in Beijing, he approaches British journalist Philip Mangan with an extraordinary story: two decades earlier Peanut was a spy for the British, he says, and now he has military secrets for sale.
The pace is frenetic as the action zings between Peanut’s violent, sweaty existence on Beijing’s smog-smothered backstreets and the high-tech world of cyber intelligence once MI6 and other shadowy organisations get involved. Brookes explains that he set out to write a suspense novel that sat “towards the realist end of the espionage genre” with “lots and lots of ‘tradecraft’, that is, the stuff that spies actually do”.
Brookes researched his spooks carefully. As a foreign correspondent reporting from dangerous parts of the world—from Iraq to North Korea—he was used to what he calls “brushing up against” foreign security services. He also discovered that some of the people he knew as British diplomats were in fact MI6 operating undercover—“while of course it doesn’t help you with the details of their day-to-day lives, it does introduce you to their tone of voice, the way they speak, the way they carry themselves, their general concerns and their world view.”
There are plenty of thrills in Night Heron but Brookes also shows the back end; the slow, methodical processes of the security agencies, and the endless paperwork. “In the end these are not agencies full of people with licenses to kill,” he points out. “They are bureaucrats.”
But he also wanted to write about modern China: “I wanted to walk the reader into China in a way that kept them orientated, so that they don’t get confused with names and places. I wanted to have Chinese characters who had real lives, who had pasts and problems and some depth, rather than just allowing them to be ciphers for the bad guys.”
Brookes’ passion for China began as a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London where he read for a degree in Chinese with Politics. The course included a year in China and so Brookes lived there in 1984, witnessing first-hand “the very first stirrings of reform” after high Communism first-hand.
His visit coincided with the opening up of 250 cities which had been closed to foreigners since the 1950s and Brookes was hooked: “It was just extraordinary, that sense of discovery . . . I think that’s what gave me the bug for journalism because it allows you to insert yourself in situations where things are unmediated, where no decisions have been made about what shape this history is taking. You’re seeing it all for the first time and it’s happening in front of you.”
Brookes is a big fan of the greats in espionage fiction, John le Carré (“I have read every word that le Carré has written umpteen times over”) and also Alan Furst, whom he credits with “seriousness of purpose” in espionage: “The notion that the espionage novel can address all sorts of interesting aspects of yourself, your relationship with society and the state, and notions of friendship and love and, of course, betrayal.”
Formats: £18.99 HB / £9.49 EB
Rights: Five territories including US (Hachette: Redhook), Japan (Hayakawa), Italy (Newton Compton), Polish (Muza), Finnish (Minerva); audio rights sold to Isis
Editor: Ed Wood
Agent: Catherine Clarke at Felicity Bryan
1963: Born in Ontario, Canada
1988: Chinese with Politics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
1990-1992: Producer, BBC World Service
1999-2003: BBC's Beijing correspondent
2004-Present: BBC's Washington Correspondent, now freelance