September 9, 2004

OUR TROLLOPE (via Mike Daley):

No Country for Old Men: Charles McCarry's gray-haired spies take
a curtain call. (P.J. O'Rourke, 09/13/2004, Weekly Standard)

I FIRST HEARD of Charles McCarry in El Salvador during the civil war. I was in a bar known to be frequented by covert types, having a drink with a fellow from the U.S. embassy whose title was something like "trade
attaché"--although he almost certainly wasn't, El Salvador having little
trade in anything but weapons at the time. We were talking about the things
American journalists and intelligence officers talk about when they're stuck
in third-world sinkholes: intestinal disorders, souvenir shopping, local
girls. The conversation turned to the ridiculous exaggerations of spy
thrillers set in such places. My embassy acquaintance said, "You should read
Charles McCarry. His stuff is very realistic." There was a nervous pause.
"Not that I'd know," he added.

Back home, I read everything I could find of McCarry's, though finding it
wasn't always easy. McCarry is the best modern writer on the subject of
intrigue--by the breadth of Alan Furst, by the fathom of Eric Ambler, by any
measure. Read Dostoyevsky's The Possessed or Conrad's The Secret Agent for
worthwhile comparisons, and when you do, you'll see why McCarry has never
achieved the popularity of John LeCarré, the author to whom he is most often

McCarry has LeCarré's interest in ethical complexities and the tart style of
LeCarré's early work. But, unlike John LeCarré, Charles McCarry knows right
from wrong. His theme is never that the other side is just like our side
except on the other side. McCarry's plots turn on the search for truth. The
author and his heroes aren't in doubt about what the truth is: Good is good,
and bad is bad.

As good as is the description of what makes Mr. McCarry one of our best authors, even better is the description of why John LeCarre has been a force for evil.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 9, 2004 4:42 PM

Absolutely right, on all counts. McCarry rocks, LeCarre rolls.

Posted by: John at September 10, 2004 12:53 AM

When your father is a crook, moral ambiguity becomes a comforter.

Posted by: Eugene S. at September 10, 2004 6:06 AM