Scott C.S. Stone was a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars before settling into life in Hawaii as a journalist working for Reuters and The New York Times. He wrote a lot of non-fiction books about Hawaii and Asian culture as well as a handful of novels leveraging his knowledge of the Far East. His most enduring book is The Dragon’s Eye from 1969, an espionage adventure that won the 1969 Edgar Award buoyed by some great Robert McGinnis cover art in the original paperback printing.
Michael Hawkins, our narrator, is a war correspondent in Vietnam who quits the life after a colleague is killed in action. He retreats to Honolulu to work on a book, get laid and learn to surf. Hawkins’ easy life is interrupted by a visit from an old friend - a former journalist who now appears to be working for the CIA. He recruits Hawkins to help a British-born journalist defect to the United States from China. The would-be defector is currently working for Communist China’s state-run news agency.
Hawkins’ bounces from Taiwan to Hong Kong to Thailand to Laos and much of the novel feels like a bit of a Fodor’s Guide to 1969 Asia. I found it interesting because the narrator is an excellent tour guide, but those seeking wall-to-wall espionage action may get bored. Hawkins (and the reader, by proxy) learns about the labyrinthine structure of Red China’s intelligence apparatus, and it’s a pretty fascinating academic lesson. The upshot for the plot is that the New China News Agency is not like the AP or Reuters but functions as an intel agency with every reporter functioning as a spy. As such, the defecting journalist is a big deal - the highest ranking non-Chinese in Red China’s government who wants to come over to America and spill his guts.
Along the way to facilitate the defection, there is torture and sex and murder and lies and romance and double-crosses and everything else you might expect from a competently-written international espionage paperback. Stone’s writing is pretty excellent, and the story moves at a nice clip. It’s denser than most disposable fiction from the 1960s, but the extra attention that the paperback demands is rewarded by a compelling story with interesting characters and exotic locales.
For a book coveted by paperback collectors for its iconic cover art, The Dragon’s Eye was a total pleasure to read. If you are thoroughly disinterested in the spread of communism in Southeast Asia during the late 1960s, you’ll probably be bored silly with much of the book, but I found the whole thing pretty riveting and learned a lot within the body of this exciting adventure story. Recommended.
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