This is the last in Charles McCarry’s long-running series of spy novels about Paul Christopher. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of them: McCarry’s prose is cool and clear, and his plots are as clean as Christopher’s operations (which is to say, not always completely.) I still think that Tears of Autumn, the second of the series, presents the most plausible conspiracy theory for the JFK assassination I’ve ever heard. Christopher himself, a private and reserved man, a poet, a linguist, is a most appealing spy. These books have truly been a pleasure.
Christopher’s Ghosts begins with a trip back in time, to Paul Christopher’s youth in Nazi Germany. He and his parents found themselves trapped in Berlin, and in danger because his extraordinary parents, Hubbard and Lori, assisted several Jews to escape to Denmark. A sadistic SS officer takes pleasure in harassing the family, and things become far worse when Paul falls in love with a Jewish girl. Lori is able to sacrifice herself (readers who have followed these books in order will understand the extent of her sacrifice, but this book can be read on its own) and protect her own family, but there is still horror and atrocity in store for the Christophers.
Flash forward to 1959, and Christopher is working for the CIA (the Outfit, as McCarry always calls it.) He’s given a job in East Germany, looking into the Soviet use of Arab forces. And whom should he meet but his old nemesis, tiger chasing tiger once again?
McCarry does a chilling and convincing job showing the damage the Nazi regime does: the way the relentless surveillance and thought control do their brutal work; the way manufactured racial hierarchies become second nature; the way people live in constant expectation of the knock on the door. Anyone in a uniform, even a child, can give life-or-death orders. If he’d ended the book after the first half, it would have been an interesting novella about the effect of evil and the countereffect of love.
The second half brings in the spycraft: Christopher has all his friends by now, ones longtime readers know from other books, and he uses his trade (however much that may or may not resemble SS techniques) to catch his prey. In this half, he’s Christopher, not Paul, and the name change (and the shift in prose style) matches his weary outlook. The “ghosts” of the title are not merely the dead, but the unreachable states of the past. The book moves to a conclusion that’s predictable and satisfying but never inevitable, and leaves ripples to consider in Christopher’s character and his personal history.
I said at the beginning that this is the last of the books about Paul Christopher. I ought to have said that this is the most recent. But Charles McCarry is now 82 years old, and every book we get from him is a gift. If you enjoy spy fiction at all, treat yourself to one of these.