Written by Michael Wreford — Plenty of spy and espionage stories focus on Europe and Russia, set mainly between the 1930s and the 1970s, when borders were stricter, and the flow of information across them was mainly in the form of papers lining the false bottoms of suitcases. Agent Ai is something else, the majority of the novel is set further east, in the year 2001, and the enemy is not fascism or communism, but the growing threat of cyber-terrorism.
The events of 11 September, 2001 are a central turning point in the novel, but most of the time they are only a backdrop – a shock – which motivates one of the characters into action. The real story is that of George Quant, a journalist who does some freelance work for British intelligence. When we meet George, in mid 2001, he is on the run from Moscow, smuggling a DVD marked ‘CITADEL’ with him on the Trans-Mongolian Express to Beijing. The disc contains an antivirus, a computer program designed to negate the effects of a new type of computer virus, engineered to take out major international networks. Both the virus and the antidote were designed by Aleksandr Zhiglov, a cryptologist working for Trusov AntiMalware Corporation, a Russian company looking to make money by selling the antidote to the virus they created.
The novel’s timeline is not linear; it jumps from China and Hong Kong in August and September 2001, to Moscow in the earlier months of 2001, and to Phnom Penh in 1997. In Phnom Penh George meets Karen, a British secret service employee who is ‘Spy first, person second.’ A love affair and a trip back to London to sit and fail a spying exam follow, before the two meet again in Russia, where George tries to win Karen back by offering to infiltrate Trusov AntiMalware. In Beijing he meets Karen’s contact, known only as Ho, and Pierce de Havilland, an enigmatic foreigner with mysterious connections throughout Asia.
In China, George goes by the codename Mr Ai, translated in the novel as Mr Trustworthy (although it could also be literally translated as Mr Love) and spends his time running from Yuri Yakunin, a Trusov employee and ex-KGB officer who is intent on getting what is his back. The action twists and turns as George tries to work both sides against each other, as the virus Trusov has unleashed starts to shut down the world around him.
It is this action that is the novel’s main strong point. Despite the shifts in time, Kill With a Borrowed Knife is always moving forward – it’s first and foremost an action book. And as with so many Hollywood productions, it tends to be all action and not much else. If you like action, if you like page-turners, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this novel.
China and the Chinese language form an important part of the plot, with the chapter titles referring to The 36 Stratagems, ancient Chinese maxims pre-dating Sun Tzu’s The Art of War by centuries. Knowledge of Chinese is not an essential part of enjoying the novel, although an interest in the politics and languages of the Far East is certainly helpful. If, like me, you enjoy spy thrillers and are looking for a little bit of a change of setting, you may well enjoy Agent Ai – a thriller in the truest sense of the word.
CFL Rating: 4 stars