February 24, 2006


The Great American Spy Novel: Charles McCarry and The Tears of Autumn 30 years later (BRENDAN BERNHARD, LA Weekly)

It’s tempting to say that Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn is the greatest espionage novel ever written by an American, if only because it’s hard to conceive of one that could possibly be better. But since no one can claim to have read every American espionage novel ever written, let’s just say that The Tears of Autumn is a perfect spy novel, and that its hero, Paul Christopher, should by all rights be known the world over as the thinking man’s James Bond — and woman’s too.

Originally published in 1974, The Tears of Autumn has been out of print for more than a decade. Thanks to the Overlook Press, which is going to be slowly reissuing several other McCarry novels, it is available once more. (Penguin has purchased the paperback rights.) Economical in length, tersely poetic in style, it purports to solve the biggest political mystery of the 20th century: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In a just world, or at any rate a braver one, the liveliest film directors of the last few decades would have fought to bring it to the screen. That this hasn’t happened can perhaps be explained by the fact that its interpretation of the Kennedy assassination quietly stings American pride in a way even Oliver Stone wouldn’t countenance.

McCarry, who is 75, lives in Massachusetts but spends his winters in Pompano Beach, Florida, where I met him in February. [...]

Starting in 1972 with The Miernik Dossier, an innovative concoction of fictional official reports and documents written by various agents trying to decide whether a Polish dissident is a double agent or merely an eccentric, and ending with 2004’s Old Boys, in which a group of retired septuagenarian agents get together for one last covert operation, McCarry has now written seven novels in which Paul Christopher, Autumn’s hero, plays a major role.

From the start, McCarry has been recognized as a genre writer of exceptional ability. Eric Ambler, whose A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939) is often referred to as the greatest thriller ever written, wrote that McCarry’s first novel was “the most enthralling and intelligent piece of work” he had read in years. Autumn was a best-seller (the only McCarry novel to achieve that status) 30 years ago, and remains his best-known work. Subsequent novels in the Christopher cycle such as The Secret Lovers (1977), The Last Supper (1983) and Second Sight (1992) have been praised by everyone from Elmore Leonard to Norman Mailer, whose own massive CIA novel, Harlot’s Ghost, owes McCarry an obvious debt. And when he has strayed from the espionage field, McCarry has done just as well. The Washington Post’s book critic, Jonathan Yardley, called McCarry’s 1995 novel, Shelley’s Heart, which is about a presidential election stolen through the manipulation of computerized voting machines, the greatest novel ever written “about life in high-stakes Washington.” The real mystery about McCarry’s work is why it hasn’t been more popular.

Timing may have something to do with it. The post-Watergate era was not the ideal moment to bring a virtuous CIA agent before the serious reading public. Paul Christopher is the kind of American one doesn’t read about much anymore — intelligent, sensitive, multilingual, nonviolent, at home anywhere in the world, and a talented poet to boot. And though Autumn and the other books in the Christopher series are frequently skeptical about the value of intelligence work, sometimes devastatingly so, they don’t express any doubt about the value of the Cold War struggle itself, and the CIA is depicted in sympathetic terms. Unlike Le Carré, McCarry never fell for the idea that there might not be much difference, on a moral level, between the CIA and the KGB, let alone the societies they represented. [...]

The Tears of Autumn sold half a million copies in paperback, and was translated into several languages. It remains his most famous novel, but for his fans it is only one side of a multifaceted work. Taken together, his Christopher novels form a vast intergenerational saga about love, espionage and betrayal that puts spying at the heart of human nature. (“Let me tell you something,” says an agent to an overly inquisitive 10-year-old girl in a later book. “You’re asking questions that nobody should ever ask and nobody would ever answer. People lie. You can’t just ask for the truth and expect other people to tell it to you. It’s too valuable. You have to watch, listen, read, remember, put things together.”) Spying, in other words, is just a glorified form of close observation. “Anyone who has ever conducted a secret love affair has practiced tradecraft,” notes McCarry.

The books span the globe — from Communist China (where Christopher is imprisoned for 10 years) to Washington, D.C.; from the Atlas Mountains (where his daughter, Zarah, is brought up alone by his first wife) and the jungles of the Congo to Berlin, Geneva, Rome, Paris. Though he professes not to have a style and not to want one, McCarry writes prose of unusual lucidity and grace. There are no rough spots or awkward words, and he never seems to strain. We see what he wants us to see as clearly as if it were projected onto a screen, and we feel and smell and taste and hear everything he describes.

Stories from one novel spill over into other novels, sometimes with Faulkneresque contradictions. To find out what happens to Molly, Christopher’s girlfriend in Autumn, you have to read the prologue to The Last Supper. The story of Christopher’s first marriage is in The Secret Lovers, while Second Sight describes the peculiar upbringing of Zarah. There is even a novel (The Bride of the Wilderness) that recounts the entire history of the Christopher family, going back centuries, before it reaches America. Many of the novels are love stories as much as spy stories, and often very sexual stories (McCarry writes well about sex). They also form a record of Christopher’s lifelong friendship, all the more touching because it is so formal, with David Patchen, his Washington boss, who was painfully disfigured during fighting in World War II. Both men signed up with the CIA at the same time, seeing in it an opportunity for “a lifetime of inviolable privacy.”

Though McCarry himself is classified as right-leaning in his political sympathies (read his Lucky Bastard for the ultimate satire of the Clintons, a Manchurian Candidate for the 1990s), Autumn is a powerful cautionary tale about the hazards of Americans getting caught up in alien cultures they cannot possibly understand, and it is not a book that a pro-war advocate would use to try to bolster his case now.

Were he not a conservative genre writer this might be considered the great American cycle of novels.

-REVIEW ESSAY: Le Morte de Christopher: Charles McCarry's novels (Douglas A. Jeffrey, Summer 2005, Claremont Review of Books)

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 24, 2006 11:43 PM

Given how academia has undermined "serious" literature, the best, and most lasting, writers are now writing genre.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 25, 2006 1:02 PM

I just checked my bookshelf, and whaddya know? I've got a copy of Tears of Autumn. I suppose now I'll have to read it.

Shelley's Heart was fantastic.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 25, 2006 1:44 PM

can anyone tell me what is meant by "a sting to American pride"; i.e. what is the ending ?

Posted by: toe at February 25, 2006 2:32 PM

It may not be in the same league as McCarry, but for an often extremely funny novel of espionage and tradecraft, find a copy of Dunn's Conundrum by Stan Lee (not the comics guy).

Posted by: PapayaSF at February 25, 2006 2:43 PM