The Miernik Dossier, by Charles McCarry, is the first of his series of spy novels featuring Paul Christopher of the CIA. I’ve already read several of the sequels, beginning with Tears of Autumn, but for some reason I’d omitted reading this first one, so I decided to go back and get some more of Christopher’s background.
The Miernik Dossier is presented as a series of documents that trace the progress of a “typical” spy operation. There are letters, telegrams, reports from different intelligence services, transcripts from listening devices, descriptions of photographs, and so on. It tells the story of a Polish man, Tadeusz Miernik, who is living in Geneva and who may or may not be a Russian operative. He comes to Paul Christopher, anxious not to be deported back to Poland. A coincidence (or is it?) sends Miernik, along with Christopher, an English spy, and an African prince on a trip to the Sudan in an air-conditioned Cadillac. Their adventures — rescuing Miernik’s sister from Poland, an apparently random attack by bandits, meeting an acquaintance in Cairo — make up the story. As the book goes on, the pieces of the operation begin to fall into place. No person within the operation has all the pieces of evidence; you as the reader are the only one with all the clues and therefore with the ability to understand what really happened and why.
I love good spy novels, and it seems that Charles McCarry is incapable of writing a bad one. The Miernik Dossier is dazzling in its puzzle-perfection. It’s fascinating, both for the interplay of personality and for the slow twists and turns of international politics and spycraft. Paul Christopher is a poet (literally — he writes poems in his spare time), and his reports are not the dry material you might expect from a professional spy: he speculates on fate, on character, and on the color of the night sky even as he delivers the precise coordinates needed for his trade. There’s a sly moment when he compares spies to novelists, claiming that both create the characters they need and then manipulate them expertly.
If you enjoy spy novels at all, this is one to savor. Poetry, intrigue, suspense, and a cool, resourceful hero: who could ask for more? (And then read the rest. Tears of Autumn provides the most engaging and compelling explanation for the Kennedy assassination I’ve ever seen.)