John Simpson is a veteran news reporter for the BBC chalking up fifty years with the corporation. Not surprisingly, he has written many books about his experiences and the life and times of those he reported about. He is also the author of four novels, two in the 1980s, leaving a big gap to 2018’s Moscow, Midnight which features Jon Swift, an ageing Irish journalist who is not ready to be put out to grass. This summer saw a second outing for Swift in Our Friends in Beijing.
Swift is clearly Simpson’s fictional alter ego, but he’s at pains to point out in a statement prefacing the novel,
Most of the events in these pages really happened.
But don’t assume that ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘they’ are the people I, we and they actually are.
That said, you can’t help but see Simpson in Swift, who in this book will dodge bullets at Tiananmen Square just as Simpson did, and is tortured as Simpson was (read about that here), and that resemblance does add a certain level of extra peril.
Swift’s bosses are keen to retire him, but after a not really by chance encounter with an old friend from university days, now high up in the Chinese govt, he persuades the agency to let him disappear off to China to see what’s happening. Lin Lifang is up to something, and Swift wants to get the story. This is confirmed when he gets beaten up by a Chinese TV crew who come to interview him in his flat.
So he heads off with Alyssa, a beautiful and talented young Nigerian producer who will have to double as camerawoman. He is undeniably attracted to her as an old-school chap, but will remain more of a friend and father figure ultimately. No sooner do they arrive than they get embroiled in all kinds of intrigue from all sides. Swift will take several more batterings, but they’ll manage to get their findings back out to the West to safety, although there is tragedy to come too.
Enough of plot, which is to be honest, slightly nebulous and unfocused, serving as a vehicle for the main characters and a look at Chinese politics on the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s foundation. Simpson has fun with his lead character who is very blokey and self-deprecating, impetuous and full of banter, yet really knows his stuff and of course has valuable contacts. The chapters are short and fly by. There is some Chinese politics in there, but you don’t need to know more than the headlines to recognise the type of power games in play. It’s a case of keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, as they say. I rather enjoyed this thriller. (8/10)
Source: Review copy. John Murray hardback, 373 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.