The Mandarin Code: thriller rips mask from impassive, obsequious public servants

A Chinese national flees his embassy near the foot of Parliament House in the darkness, sprints toward Commonwealth Avenue bridge and drowns in Lake Burley Griffin.

So begins the latest thriller, The Mandarin Code, from journalists Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann, a fictional romp soaked in Canberra locales released this week.

Spies organise clandestine meetings at the National Portrait Gallery, the Australian War Memorial and the Hansel and Gretel cafe in Phillip, while politicians shag staffers on the mezzanine level of Parliament House. Bureaucrats sprint up Mount Ainslie and others retreat to Red Hill to seek solace from the political jungle below.

As co-author Lewis said: "Canberra is a central character in this book."

The Mandarin Code, a sequel to The Marmalade Files, sees protagonist and exclusive-hungry reporter Harry Dunkley as he uncovers major cyber attacks on Australia.

In the process he touches the sensitive nerve of Australia's difficult choice between America and China – a theme that has become a real problem for the Abbott government in the non-fiction world, particularly as its relationship with Japan flowers – and probes the secret dealings of senior public servants, who want to take over the running of government.


Former ABC 7.30 political editor now AM presenter Uhlmann said he and Lewis wanted to portray Canberra as a multi-layered city stacked with intriguing people, even though outsiders might see the national capital as a tad dry.

The pair have almost 50 years combined experience working in Canberra.

Some of the more intriguing public servants they have met helped inspire characters such as Charles Dancer, a boilerplate yoga-loving bureaucrat who lives in Manuka and is approaching an age when most public servants would be seeking a "quiet corner of some overlooked agency in which to eke out their time".

It turns out Dancer is a spy paid to fix national security threats ordinary people could not imagine.

"I would have met my first Charles Dancers – nothing like that character [in the book] – in the early 1990s," said Uhlmann, who conceded it was tough work writing another book.

"I was genuinely not enthusiastic about the idea of writing another book," he said.

"Time evaporates – it's like being back at school. There's not a moment when you're doing this that, when you finish your normal work, you don't think, 'oh I should be working on the book now'."

The two writers took a draft manuscript to Malua Bay on the NSW South Coast to read every page aloud during their summer holiday.

Already the book was infused with personal experience.

During their gonzo-journalism style research phase they ran the one kilometre from the Chinese embassy to Commonwealth Avenue bridge and were asked not to take photos of the Joseph Banks painting at the Portrait Gallery.

Lewis regularly runs up Mount Ainslie and the former senior News Ltd political reporter recently turned communications consultant had a head start when it came to writing about the construction of the new Chinese embassy.

In the book the embassy's use of imported labour prompts local union outrage. Lewis was the journalist who broke the story in real life thanks to a colleague who was chasing Darth Vader in early 2013.

"(News Ltd photographer) Gary Ramage sent up in a balloon to chase the Darth Vader balloon and by chance he happened to float over the Chinese embassy," Lewis said.

"He took about 40 photos. They showed workers clearly in breach of Australian building laws."

Darth Vader did not make it into the book, perhaps proving – even in the case of The Mandarin Code with its treachery, sin and satire – that the truth is eternally stranger than fiction.