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The fictional mandarins: new book cuts Canberra close to the bone

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The Mandarin Code
The Mandarin Code

A pair of white pillars embossed with the numerals “25” frame a steep driveway, the only markers to inform guests they’ve arrived at the Commonwealth Club. Set on a gentle slope overlooking Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin, the club is a reminder of an earlier age when the permanent heads who frequented it were the people who really ran the country.

These public service titans — Wilson, Bunting, Wheeler, Tange — are long gone now, but we’ve sought to resurrect them, or their fictional offspring, in our novel, The Mandarin Code.

The second in a trilogy, the novel is anchored in Canberra and tells the tale of a weak Australian government sandwiched between two great powers. China and the United States are jostling for supremacy, edging closer to conflict as they vie to be the dominant power in the Asia Pacific in the 21st century.

The government is caught in a geo-political bind between its biggest trading partner and its closest military ally, desperate not to be forced into an impossible choice.

Our mandarins, who plot and scheme in the Commonwealth Club over G&Ts, have no doubts whose side Australia should be on. They’ve even dubbed themselves “the Alliance”, a nod to the pact with America that stretches back to the late 1940s.

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. Toohey leads a government wrestling with its internal demons, seemingly intent on self-destruction and stalked by a challenger who refuses to die: bed-ridden Foreign Minister Catriona Bailey.

“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.”

Like The Marmalade Files, our first novel, The Mandarin Code 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 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.

The Mandarin Code is set in a familiar landscape but it’s chock full of unexpected 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 seen it before.

Because Australian politics just got deadly.

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 The Marmalade Files. Both are published by HarperCollins Australia.

Author Bio

Steve Lewis & Chris Uhlmann

Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann are political journalists based in Canberra. They have authored two fiction books: The Marmalade Files and The Mandarin Code.