I’ve written about Charles McCarry’s spy novels here before, but I have to say it again: I don’t know why he’s not more popular, a best-seller, a classic novelist in the genre like Le Carré. Unlike my other favorite spy novelist, Alan Furst, his writing isn’t lush and atmospheric. Instead, it’s cool and clean and refreshing, his plots ticking away silently, like an excellent watch. His characters are distinctive, three-dimensional, and fascinating, and none more so than his central character, the spy-poet Paul Christopher.
Second Sight is the fifth novel about Paul Christopher (and the seventh about Christopher’s extended family, if you count the historical romance epic Bride of the Wilderness and the novel of suspense The Better Angels, written about the other side of the Christopher family, the Hubbards.) In this one, Christopher meets his daughter, Zarah, the heretofore unknown child of his first marriage. Zarah has been brought up in the mountains of the Idraren Draren, among an obscure desert people, the Ja’wabi, who have a distant but ineluctable tie to Christopher’s past: the woman who helped raise Zarah knew Christopher’s mother, who was kidnapped by the Gestapo before Christopher’s eyes many years ago. Zarah resembles Christopher’s mother so closely that when she first shows up at his door, he speaks to her in German: Lebst du noch? Are you alive, then?
At the same time, the CIA, which Christopher has served for so many years, is in trouble. Someone is capturing CIA agents all over the world, giving them an unknown drug, extracting a complete confession of everything they know, relevant and irrelevant, secret and public — and then releasing them. The agents are of course useless, and so is everything they’ve touched. Huge secret structures are crumbling. How can Christopher’s past with his parents, and his present with Zarah, combine to solve both the CIA’s problems and his own quiet soul?
I can’t tell you how completely delightful this book was, if you like a good spy story. There’s not an extraneous word, and yet each character is lovingly detailed, given a history, given personality. (My favorite character was the wife of the director of the CIA, an unworldly Quaker.) Even the repellent journalist who exploits his extreme liberal politics as a means to get what he wants has a touch of humanity.
I only have two more books in this series, along with another novel of suspense about the Hubbards, before I’ve finished McCarry’s work. I’ll be sorry when I’m done. These books never fail to surprise me with how good they are. Get The Miernik Dossier to start with, or Tears of Autumn, and don’t look back.