There are 987 steps separating the embassies of the United States and China in Canberra’s diplomatic precinct, a short stroll from parliament. We know this because we paced them out, carefully, one brisk winter’s evening a year ago. We were plotting The Mandarin Code, seeking out the characters and the settings to enliven the narrative of our political thriller.
The second in a trilogy, The Mandarin Code kicks off with a Chinese national trying to escape the embassy compound taking shape near Lake Burley Griffin.
This is no ordinary building site. Wrapped in threatening razor wire and with CCTV cameras placed on every corner, populated by a transplanted workforce travelling on diplomatic visas, the Chinese embassy was a black site for all but a select few. The local building union, the CFMEU, even the ACT building inspector had no access. And that chafed.
Our protagonist, one of China’s prestigious cyber-warriors, had been sent to Canberra for one reason: to infiltrate key Australian installations. Instead he seeks to defect to the Americans, hoping to buy their trust with a USB full of China’s deepest secrets.
Does he make it?
The novel tells the tale of an Australian government caught between great powers. The US and China are edging closer to conflict as they vie to be the dominant power in the Asia Pacific in the 21st Century. Australia is caught in a geopolitical bind between its biggest trading partner and its closest military ally, desperate not to be forced into an impossible choice.
Like the The Marmalade Files, our first novel, The Mandarin Code is anchored in Canberra and continues the story of Harry Dunkley, hard-boiled press gallery veteran who doesn’t mind wearing out the shoe leather in pursuit of the truth.
During his chase for the killer of his best friend, Dunkley stumbles into the sights of three countries and those who really wield power in Canberra, the public service mandarins.
The story spans the globe but it is played out on the streets of the national capital, which itself is a central character in the novel. We wanted to present Canberra as it really is, a city of drama, intrigue and subterfuge, inhabited by spies, conniving politicians, scheming public servants and sceptical, sometimes cynical journalists.
So, back to our Chinese national and his attempted escape. What’s on the USB secreted in his body? What hidden gems will it reveal?
And when Australia comes under cyber-attack, not once but three times, who is the invisible adversary that has breached the nation’s internet defences?
Against this backdrop, a minority Labor government – led by the well intentioned but hapless Prime Minister Martin Toohey – clings to power as it heads into an election year.
Behind in the polls, Toohey needs a big cut-through political statement to win back Labor’s base, to give them just a sniff of victory.
But Toohey leads a Government wrestling with its internal demons and seemingly intent on self-destruction. He also faces a challenger that refuses to die: bed-ridden Foreign Minister Catriona Bailey.
The Mandarin Code is set in a familiar landscape but it’s full of twists and turns.
It’s all fiction, of course. But we wanted it to be as close-to-the-bone as the law would allow, taking you inside a political world where most reporters fear to tread.
Oh, and for those who love political drama like the House of Cards and Borgen, the great news is that Matchbox Pictures and Foxtel are developing a six-part mini series based on our two novels. The aim will be to show Canberra like you’ve never it before.
Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann have more than 40 years combined experience in reporting politics from Canberra. The Mandarin Code is their second novel, and follows the best-selling Marmalade Files. Both are published by HarperCollins Australia.