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The Peking Letter, A Novel of the Chinese Civil War by Seymour Topping


Early drafts edited by Alexandra Shelley prior to further editing and publication by PublicAffairs press. Seymour Topping is former managing editor of The New York Times, and is now administrator of the Pulizer Prizes and a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.


Chicago Tribune Book Section (full review):

Americans glory in having vanquished communism, the No. 1 foreign policy threat of the last 100 years. But as we prepare to check into the new millennium, we do well to recall the time, so ably captured in Seymour Topping's novel, when communism triumphed.

"The Peking Letter" reads like a treatment for a movie thriller. Topping's pop-out characters include buxom American consulate secretaries eager for steamy romps in bed, high-living cynical expatriates like the French Lt. Leone, and the brutal, blue-eyed Chinese Col. Liu, who heads the Kuomintang's secret police and serves as Inspector Javert to Jensen's Jean Valjean.

The reader will not get bored with this fast-paced action, but the book's great virtue lies in its historical verisimilitude. The publisher, Public Affairs, describes itself as a non-fiction house, and history is so central to the purpose of this novel that the book includes useful maps of China and Peking.

It is difficult to think of a living American journalist with better firsthand experience appropriate to this story. Topping covered China for The Associated Press from 1946 to 1949. After joining The New York Times in the late 1950s, he reported on China from Hong Kong. He later became the newspaper's managing editor.

Topping gets the complex history right. The most fascinating historical tie-in is Wagging Pipit, the name of Topping's CIA caper to use Jensen. In fact, a small group of American officials came up with the real-life Tawny Pipit operation in 1949, when China and the U.S. had become diplomatically estranged.

Topping's Wagging Pipit offers scenes befitting a James Bond movie. It also highlights both the fissures that existed in the American foreign-policy Establishment at the time and the pressures that officials felt from witch-hunting legislators. Herein lies the moral of the story. The U.S. has shown a propensity for casting foreign-policy debates in ideological terms that obscure realities. In China during the late 1940s, the most important realities were not communist trickery; they were the ineffectiveness of the Nationalists, who had not addressed the social needs of the people.; August 29, 1999


“...[a] silly but undeniably lively extravaganza.” -The New York Times, Maureen Corrigan

“...a novel that weaves together the intrigue of China's civil war with discussions of ancient Taoist philosophy and personal integrity.” -The New York Times Book Review, Lisa See

“Topping, who covered the civil war for the New York Times, gives a convincing portrait of the fall of the Nationalists: his descriptions of battlefields, devastated towns, and the privileged life of foreigners in old China as it gives way to the new have a spare, powerful conviction. His characters can be less convincing; Li-nan is admirable but one-dimensional, and Eric, is an often surprisingly unreflective student of Taoism, more given to action than to analysis. Still, Topping's obvious fascination with China and his ability to propel a complex plot make for an absorbing, if somber, thriller.” –Kirkus Reviews