Shelley’s Heart

As some of you know, I’m extremely partial to good spy novels. And every time I read another of Charles McCarry’s contributions to this genre, I wonder again why it is that he’s not a bestseller. Most of McCarry’s books feature the CIA spy (and poet) Paul Christopher, and they are marvelous, cool, tightly-plotted, wonderfully-characterized books that range all over the world. His novels are always compelling, partly because they seem so utterly plausible (McCarry himself worked for the Outfit for years) and partly because they are so elegantly written.

McCarry doesn’t restrict himself to the spy novel genre, however. He also writes political thrillers (tangentially related to the Paul Christopher novels — the other side of Christopher’s family, the Hubbards) that construct an alternative, and sometimes eerily prescient, version of the United States we know. In 1979 he published The Better Angels, which reviewers criticized for being too outlandish: Middle Eastern terrorist organizations use commercial jetliners as weapons, and one party steals an election from the other in much the same way, one might suspect, as the 2000 election could have been stolen.

Shelley’s Heart, published in 1995, takes up just months after The Better Angels ends. Franklin Mallory, the conservative candidate who was robbed in the election, has absolute proof of the fraud, and is privately asking the popular liberal president, Bedford Forrest Lockwood, man of the people, to step down. Both men are honorable. Both men believe they have America’s best interests at heart. The genius of Shelley’s Heart lies in showing how far men (and, occasionally, women) of honor will go to protect the interests of their position, their cause, and their country.

I won’t go into great detail with the twists and turns of the book. Suffice it to say that although it is a long political thriller, and although it is complex enough that I sometimes had to turn back to make sure I understood what was going on, there is not a single dull page in the entire novel. There is cheating and lying, killing and seduction, a madman appointed to the Supreme Court, uses of the Constitution I could never have imagined (but that are horribly plausible now that I’ve read them), surveillance and terrorism and journalism and conspiracy of the deepest imaginable dye. I read this book on the airplane to France, and despite the fact that I was dropping with sleep, I could not put it down until I’d finished it. It literally made my heart beat faster, even though it is coolly written and even-handed, its prose never purple.

McCarry’s novel is placed slightly in the future (for 1995). It’s amazing how many things he got right: surveillance technology, for instance, and the war on terror. He didn’t realize the importance of everyone running around on their Blackberries and so forth, but that’s about the only thing I can see that he missed.

One of the things I liked best about this book was that it made me enjoy and respect characters I would ordinarily find unsympathetic if not repulsive. McCarry’s touch for characterization is such that even I, a flat-out liberal, can see that not all actions are good in service of the Cause (as he calls the liberal agenda.) If you enjoy spy novels — and even if you just enjoy engaging, complex novels of any description — get thee to a bookstore and try one of Charles McCarry’s novels. I have another of his for the ride back to the United States. I can’t wait.

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2 Responses to Shelley’s Heart

  1. Eva says:

    I’m ALWAYS on the look out for a wonderful new spy writer, so I was so excited to see this post! Have you read Alan Furst? He blew me away with Night Soldiers.

  2. Danielle says:

    The Better Angels sounds eerily prescient! I’ve only recently started reading thrillers/spy novels, but they’ve tended to be historical novels rather than anything contemporary. I will have to look out for this author!

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