The Turncoat is a Gold Medal original by Hal G. Evarts, first published in 1960. The book's titular hero is David Grant, an American born to missionaries in China, who earns his turncoat title after being captured & brainwashed by Evil Red Communists in the Korean War.
Since the war, Grant has worked slowly towards reintegrating himself into society, a process that comes tumbling down around him when the US intelligence service comes calling.
Despite his dodgy record, Grant is the only American alive that speaks an obscure Tibetan dialect. That - plus his desperate need to prove himself - makes him the ideal operative for Operation Dragonfly.
Dragonfly is an ingenious operation. Grant's job is to skulk across the Indian border into Tibet to liberate an influential lama (think 'Dalai' not 'Emperor's New Groove'). Along the way, he encounters sinister Communists of every persuasion (Chinese, Russian, traitorous American), the hostile landscape and, frequently, his own weaknesses.
The Turncoat has many weaknesses. There's a lot of 'noble savage' going on here - the ponderous but virtuous Tibetan folk are ridiculous caricatures. And the Evil Communists combine all the worst aspects of Nazi cannibal mutant butchers - further reinforced by their alien Chinese heritage. That said - most of those flaws can be squarely (if generously) blamed on the era of publication.
The Turncoat balances these out with a shocking variety of strengths. Grant is a genuinely good character. He is slightly self-absorbed, but he's empathetically flawed. His rough background isn't forgivable, but it is sympathetic, and by the end of the book, he's clearly grown as a character. The Tibetan scenery is gorgeous - Evart captures the evocative tones of turn-of-the-century travel memoirs in describing a captivating and mysterious land. The brief flirtation with the supernatural (god forbid lamas are portrayed as anything less than wizards) resonates surprisingly well - mostly because Grant and the young lama forge an instant and powerful connection.
The various twists, turns and traitors are all exciting, but ultimately predictable - the plot of the book is on rails, rather than leaving any mystery to the reader. The real story is watching Grant mature from an introverted exile into a plausible agent - rediscovering his sense of purpose and, because of it, himself.
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