I’m a big fan of Charles McCarry’s espionage novels about the spy Paul Christopher. They’re quiet, well-written, and evocative; McCarry clearly knows what he’s talking about (he was a spy under deep cover for the CIA for many years); and Christopher is a three-dimensional character, a published poet with a love of solitude and a capability for tenderness, not just a tough guy whose politics force him into intrigue.
The books follow Christopher through his career, moving backward and forward in time. I’m a reader who insists on starting at the beginning of series — I don’t want to miss a trick — and it did me precisely no good in this case. I could have started anywhere and understood everything, read the other books in any order.
This particular novel, The Last Supper, begins in Christopher’s childhood, talking about how his father and mother met, discussing some formative events in his life (and incidentally filling us in on how he joined the Outfit and why he speaks four languages without an accent.) At first, I thought, hmmm, this is a bit slow. Then I fell into the pattern of the writing, the slow build of tension, and I realized I was reading it not as an espionage-thriller, but simply as a novel. McCarry weaves themes of betrayal, suspicion, love, and loss through the book so skilfully that you almost — but not quite — forget that it is about politics and secrets. By the end of The Last Supper, you feel the irony and pain of the solution to the mystery as much as you feel the satisfaction. It’s beautifully done.
McCarry has also written a number of stand-alone books, including The Better Angels (written 1979), in which he posits a world where terrorists use passenger-filled planes as tools of terror, and where the election hangs by a thread between a lantern-jawed liberal and a far-right former businessman with deep ties to the energy industry. Reviewers in 1979 thought it was too far-fetched. Prophetic? Or is McCarry just smarter than the rest of us? I encourage you to find out. Pick up one of the Paul Christopher books today.
(If you like spy novels and you haven’t tried Alan Furst’s, they are delicious. Sometime I’ll review one of his.)