To cut to the chase, Mei Kayling falls in love with Dick Wain (he's just plain "Negro" to her most of the time) and begins to resent the planned exploitation (or worse) of him by her superiors. That doesn't compromise her commitment to communism or her determination to fight its enemies. She takes the fight to the U.S., tracking down the vicious American operative who instigated the missile strike, a fellow fond of torturing and killing female Chinese spies. He's not the only problem she faces here. It develops that a faction of Chinese intelligence doesn't want to wait for Chairman Mao or the Politburo to decide how to respond; they intend to activate the Sea-Entry strategy and present their government with a devastated U.S. as a fait accompli. In an apparent rebuke to the conventions of spy thrillers, Mei defeats the ringleader of this plot but learns that taking one person down isn't enough to stop it. In its denouement The Bright Cantonese reveals itself as a sort of apocalyptic romance as Mei Kayling, sick of the cynical, exploitative ways of all governments, appears content to let the world burn -- the American dead alone are 38 million and counting as the novel closes --- so long as there's a chance that her lover still waits for her "a long way from the hypocentres."
The Bright Cantonese probably doesn't count as a pulp novel but it has plenty of purple prose. It's the sort that shows literary ambition, not the kind that counts the pennies per adjective. But it often can be just as overblown if not more so. As you might expect, Cordell is at his purplest in his love scenes.
I could tell of enchantment, but it was not this; of the fluttering bird in the hand or a spread-eagled assault on womanhood, but this was not so. It is a desperate shipwreck of love when you can remember it as nothing but a soothing joy; no elemental oneness, this, no sensuous stumble into love, yet a tumult for all the scheming, a gossamer fabric spun in starlight: a savage mating in a place of primitive wave-cry and fierce moonlight. His breath was sweet and clean; decency was on his tongue when he spoke to me. And when I opened my eyes wide to the man above me it was not Kwan, he who took and starved me, but the face of darkness, he who bestowed a rhythm of strength and beauty.
That may be bad writing to some, but it contributes to the novel's idiosyncratic identity. It may be one of a kind in the spy genre, and that alone may make it worth reading, if not for pure reading pleasure than for discovery of more that could be said or imagined during the Cold War than we might have expected.