A license to thrill? Spy novelists hit pay dirt in China

Story highlights

  • China's rise fills a gaping hole for espionage writers left by the end of the Cold War
  • Corruption crackdown puts previously off bounds topics on the table
  • China has its own pack of spy novelists too: Mai Jia, Xiaolong Qui, He Jiahong

London (CNN)China, a land of surveillance and increasing military might, is turning into a writer's paradise for those with a thriller to tell.

Western authors say its rise has been pure gold for suspense novels, filling a gaping hole left by the end of the Cold War. China has its own pack of spy novelists too.
    "The mysterious side of China certainly lends itself to thriller writing," says novelist Adam Brookes.
    The second installment of his critically acclaimed Night Heron trilogy, a spy yarn set between China and the UK, will debut this month.
    "Consider: China has emerged as a global power, yet we do not know how Xi Jinping engineered his rise to the leadership. We barely understand the country's core mechanisms!" he says.
    "So we spy, to find out. And suddenly you have all sorts of dramatic possibilities."
    In August, Mai Jia, nicknamed China's John le Carré, sees the UK publication of "In the Dark" -- his follow up to his codebreaking and counterespionage novel "Decoded."
    Chinese novelist Mai Jia
    These are just the latest developments in a wider publishing tale: a growing interest in Asia, and in particular China, as a setting for tales of intrigue.

    Enemies old and new

    After the Cold War, writers spent years mourning the loss of old enemies and looking for new ones. They flirted with corporations and took on the Middle East. Yet they struggled to find something that really stuck.
    "It was easy for le Carré and people like that -- they had Russia. They were the obvious enemy," says Paul French, author of murder mystery "Midnight in Peking."
    Enter China, a former Cold War foe, which remains Communist by name and secretive by nature and it's no surprise that a growing number of acclaimed spy writers are traveling east in search of inspiration.
    Charles McCarry, one of the U.S.' most respected writers of spy fiction chose China for his 2013 hit: "The Shanghai Factor."
    It follows a young U.S. agent and his relationship with a mysterious woman named Mei, who is supposedly working for Chinese intelligence.
    The novel works both as light entertainment and as a more serious metaphor of the increasingly complicated relationship between China and the U.S.

    Closed doors

    For some, China's characteristic imperviousness is a major obstacle. Can foreign writers get the level of access needed for a great spy novel?
    "They won't even let foreigners into the Beijing naval museum without a Chinese ID card!" says French.
    For others, its impenetrable nature is a playground.
    U.S. journalist Alex Berenson, who set his second spy novel "The Ghost War" on a conflict between the US and China, admitted he left China without a deep understanding of Chinese Communist Party protocol.
    "Those doors stayed closed to me, as they do to nearly all Westerners," he wrote in the New York Times.
    "But the opacity that maddens the reporters is manna for novelists, and the novelist in me had a fine time imagining what might be happening behind closed doors in Beijing."

    Chinese characteristics

    Contemporary Chinese writers are catching on too.
    For Charlotte Middlehurst, books editor at Time Out China, this represents a significant departure from the past.
    While thrillers, in particular detective stories, have long been popular in China (Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes are big hits), Chinese writers have penned few themselves.
    "Up until recently the number of foreigners writing spy thrillers set in China has far outweighed that of local writers," Middlehurst says.
    Not anymore. China now has its own pack-- Xiaolong Qui and He Jiahong for example.
    "They, along with other writers, most notably Mai Jia, have taken the thriller genre and added Chinese characteristics turning it into something altogether more unique."
    Middlehurst attributes the trend partly to the rise of social media, which has facilitated online fanzines and reader communities.
    She also believes President Xi's recent crackdown on corruption "has resonated deeply with readers and authors" as previously off bound topics have become more openly talked about.

    Literary villain?

    Not all are convinced that China will become literary villain number one though.
    Spy fiction in the UK and U.S. at least is still dominated by tried-and-tested tropes.
    Readers like established archetypes. And foreign language books generally struggle to reach these audiences, not least books from or set in China. The culture remains confusing, the history unexplored and the language totally baffling.
    "When the landscape is so unfamiliar, many readers are wary of plunging into it," says Brookes.
    "I have tried with "Night Heron" to walk the commercial fiction reader into China and keep them oriented, but it's a hard trick to pull off."
    "And I think many thriller writers will see renewed strategic rivalries with Russia, the threat of global jihadism and terrorism as more accessible sources of locale and plot," he says.
    Despite this Brookes is optimistic.
    "China is the great strategic story of our time, and everybody should be making some effort to get to grips with it," he says.
      If China doesn't yet have a license to thrill, it's only a matter of time.