Charles McCarry, an author whose spy novels and political thrillers I’ve praised here before, waited 13 years between writing the previous Paul Christopher novel, Second Sight, and this one, Old Boys. Perhaps he thought he’d said all he had to say about the intelligence service, and then found he had something more after all. Certainly, this book is different in style and tone from others in the series, and it uses these differences to address some issues with the Outfit, as McCarry calls the CIA, but that doesn’t stop it from being a dry, taut, enjoyable read.
At the beginning of Old Boys, Paul Christopher, now in his seventies, disappears, ostensibly to look for his mother Lori, who he believes is still alive. The novel is narrated by Paul’s cousin Horace Hubbard, who conceives it his duty to look for Paul and ensure his safety. At the same time, two other major plotlines converge: a terrorist everyone thought was dead, Ibn Iwad, is quietly gathering dirty bombs to threaten major American cities, and more than anything else, he wants something Lori Christopher has. This is the Amphora Scroll, written by a Roman secret agent named Septimus Arcanus, that may prove that Jesus Christ was an unwitting pawn of the Roman intelligence service. Horace gathers the Old Boys — former members of the Outfit, now with pacemakers and arthritis — to do the impossible: find Paul and Lori, get the Amphora Scroll, and defeat Ibn Iwad.
All this intricate plotting is great fun — think The Magnificent Seven as septuagenarians — and there are a number of shoot-em-up set pieces that are tense and satisfying. But this book felt different to me from others of McCarry’s books in two ways.
The first is the narrative voice. The other Christopher novels are told in the third person (excepting The Miernik Dossier, which is told through documents.) There’s an appreciation for all different kinds of contributions to the intelligence effort, including unwitting ones. Horace Hubbard’s voice, however, is unpleasantly sexist and classist. He disparages or avoids every woman he sees, especially if she is working on his side; you can see his eyes rolling when a female agent tries to warn him off the Ibn Iwad case: “The Outfit certainly was using a tougher vocabulary since they started recruiting female case officers.” There’s an incident where he must board a Metro bus in Washington, D.C. in order to avoid being attacked: he reveals that he’s never been on a bus before and doesn’t know how to pay the fare. Only taxis for Horace. Really? In this, we hear the echo of the language of the Roman case officer, Septimus Arcanus (“the seventh mystery” — again, really?), who sneers at the peasants and the barbaric Jews in the Amphora Scroll. Perhaps McCarry is pointing out some of the pitfalls that any closed and aging intelligence service may find itself falling into.
I’ve praised McCarry’s novels in the past for their realism. No matter how far-fetched the plot device may seem, McCarry follows his spies in their tradecraft so coolly, so carefully, that his novels seem eerily prescient, weirdly plausible. (I’m convinced that his explanation of Kennedy’s assassination, in Tears of Autumn, must be correct.) This book, however, is much more of a romp than realism. The tone is elegiac at times — these Old Boys are the Outfit as it was, not as it is any longer — and mischievous at other times. McCarry points out that “irony may be to life what gravity is to the universe, the invisible force that holds everything together and keeps everything apart,” and he’s often ironic as well. But not very realistic.
Still, even given these two facts, I found Old Boys absorbing, entertaining, wonderfully well-written, and well worth reading. If you still haven’t picked up a spy novel by this master of them, why haven’t you?