Midway through “Beijing Red,” a new thriller about mysterious deaths and geopolitical tensions, the reader gets a glimpse of a key supporting character’s youth.
Years before joining the CIA, this future spy spent his adolescence devouring James Bond novels. But “(a)s he matured, so did his reading list, with John Le Carre, Ken Follett, and Robert Ludlum relegating 007 to the bottom shelf.”
It wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the writers behind this brisk and intelligent page-turner have similarly bookish pasts.
“Beijing Red” is the first novel by Alex Ryan, a pseudonym for two Navy veterans working together: Brian Andrews, who was an officer on a nuclear submarine and lives in Olathe, and Jeffrey Wilson, a Floridian and onetime combat surgeon. (For clarity’s sake, the co-authors will be collectively referred to as Ryan from here on out.)
A hectic blend of cutting-edge science, old-time espionage and cinematic violence, Ryan’s debut focuses on an ex-Navy SEAL and the improbable partnership he forges after a shocking tragedy.
Nick Foley is 28, a rugged Texan who was awarded a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. As we learn in one of the book’s effective flashbacks, Nick is haunted by his time in Afghanistan, particularly a mission in which American troops, acting on bad intelligence, accidentally killed local children.
As the novel opens, Nick has left the Navy and joined up with a nongovernmental organization in western China. He’s working on an irrigation project when a crewman falls ill. The stricken laborer, a member of the country’s Muslim Uyghur population, develops a fever, bleeds heavily and dies within hours.
Before long, dozens more have perished in similar fashion.
Could it be Ebola? A new, even more virulent contagion? A biological attack aimed at the country’s Muslims? A plot by a foreign government bent on destabilizing China?
Nick and his team are questioned by the authorities at a nearby hospital. There, he has a fateful meeting with Chen Dazhong of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Though spies and bureaucrats from three nations will try to deter them, she and Nick resolve to unravel this deeply confounding mystery.
Ryan’s novel involves complicated science, but he handles the material with the skill of an experienced clinician. Chapters that focus on pathogens, bioengineering and contaminated cells are both sophisticated and easy for the lay reader to follow.
The book also evinces a firm grasp of domestic Chinese politics. This comes through most clearly in Ryan’s account of the differences between ethnic Muslim Uyghurs and Han Chinese federal officials.
And there’s some fun tradecraft for fans of classic spy sagas. In one scene, two men sit side by side and pretend to have independent conversations, even as they’re communicating with one another. “Two distinct dialogues, carried out in different languages, but languages spoken with mutual fluency by the actors,” Ryan writes. “The advent of the cell phone made the game so much easier.”
This book has its weaknesses. There’s some overwrought dialogue — “I am going to walk in the blood of all who stand against me,” says one manic character — and several clunky sentences, especially those that contain lots of details about advanced firearms: “A SOPMOD M4 rifle with EOTECH Holosight and a PEQ-2 laser designator was his preference.”
More often, though, “Beijing Red” is smart and entertaining, a timely tale built around a resilient hero.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York.
“Beijing Red,” by Alex Ryan (304 pages; Crooked Lane; $26.99)