BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Shanghai Factor’: Engrossing Spy Novel with Amazing Twists and Turns

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Shanghai Factor': Engrossing Spy Novel with Amazing Twists and Turns
The young American spy living in Shanghai is unnamed in Charles McCarry’s “The Shanghai Factor” (Mysterious Press, 336 pages, $26.00) a detail at first disconcerting, but in the end somehow right. In an era of Edward Snowdens and Bradley Mannings, it’s fitting that the fall guy for the real spy bears no name.

He’s in his late 20s, went to a prestigious university on an ROTC scholarship rather than have his stepfather pay the tuition, studied Mandarin, fought and was wounded in Afghanistan and was recruited after this experience by a spymaster named Luther Burbank who is with a CIA-like spy shop called Headquarters.

Although he studied Mandarin in college, he quickly discovers that the only way to really learn the language is to live in China. It’s there he “meets cute” with a beautiful  young woman named Mei by crashing into her bike with his own bike, resulting in a ruined bike and a few abrasions for Mei.  Like his namesake (but no relation) the horticulturalist Luther Burbank, the spymaster specializes in cultivating new spies — or so everyone believes. In this thriller very little is as it seems. That applies to Mei, with whom the unnamed spy begins a  torrid affair that threatens to expose him to HQ’s enemies.

Burbank gives the spy a task that will force him to risk everything: go undercover as the American ambassador for a massive Chinese multinational conglomerate, and learn the secrets of their powerful CEO Chen Qi, whom HQ believes to be a front man for the nearly uncrackable Chinese Intelligence agency, the Guoanbu, their equivalent of our CIA.   Burbank is preternaturally suspicious, reminding me of the  real-life CIA counterintelligence operative James Jesus Angleton, who believed there was at least one Russian mole in the agency. Turns out, the eccentric Angleton was right! More about the remarkable Angleton, 1917-1987, whose mother was Mexican:

Soon the spy finds that HQ isn’t the only one tracking his every move, and the  Guoanbu may be aware of his true identity. His life turns into a modern day “Secret Agent Man”, with danger lies around every corner, as the enigmatic Mei flits in and ouf of his life. Just when the young spy thinks he’s closer to the truth, he finds himself drawn further into a deadly cat-and-mouse game between HQ and the Guoanbu that might not only end his life, but could upend the East/West balance of power.

Add in a mysterious woman hitperson who specializes in poisoning and who has a catering business (I’m not making this up!), and the tension increases. I’ve never read anything by McCarry, but if “The Shanghai Factor” is typical of his writing, this is a condition I’m going to remedy.

Summing up, If you like a classic spy novel, “The Shanghai Factor” is exactly what you need to read this summer.

About the Author

Charles McCarry served under deep cover as a CIA operations officer in Europe, Asia, and Africa. He is the author of twelve previous critically acclaimed novels, as well as numerous works of non-fiction including Citizen Nader. He currently splits his time between Florida and the Berkshires.
Read more from Charles McCarry at


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