Spies in the Garden
Just before America’s entry into World War II, young journalist Harry Ross is sent to Burma by Wild Bill Donovan of the fledgling OSS to keep tabs on the American Volunteer Group known as the “Flying Tigers.” He also sets up a rudimentary network of spies in the path of oncoming Japanese. When Burma is overrun, Ross moves to China, becoming more deeply involved in the enigmatic world of espionage and the country’s classically inscrutable politics. In this universe of Asian gangsters, corrupt politicians, self-serving generals, and sexy spies, Ross has a ringside seat to this little understood corner of the war and many of its leading figures, people as diverse as Chou En-lai and John Birch, ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stillwell and Claire Chennault.
Although structured as fiction, this novel has the unmistakable ring of non-fiction. Harry Ross is a spy, but mostly events just happen to him, rather than he initiating them. Many of the exploits of the Flying Tigers, for instance, are related over barroom discussions, rather than shown. Even his seductive Asian spies always take the lead in their lovemaking. Nearly all of the important personages of the time make their appearance, and again, Ross just stumbles into them. Harry is mostly an observer, relating to us what went on during the first year of the China-Burma-India theatre of operations. That being said, it remains a worthwhile read, because the history is just so darn good. The description of the many groups competing for power, the all- encompassing corruption, and the ever-present vision of the coming post-war world, are fascinating. A former specialist in southeast Asia for the U.S. Foreign Service, the author obviously knows his subject well, and provides much insight to the events and outcomes of those times.
Those who like their historical fiction with a heavy accent on history will not be disappointed.