When Charles McCarry, novelist and former CIA operative, died earlier this year, I was reminded that I’d been meaning to try his books for a long time. (Jenny is a big fan.) His books focus on the life and career of the spy Paul Christopher. My library didn’t have the first book in the series, so I started with Tears of Autumn, the second Paul Christopher novel. That worked out fine, partly because the subject matter, the Kennedy assassination, is one that is naturally really interesting.
When the book opens, it’s 1963, and Christopher is living in Rome with his new girlfriend, Molly, but his CIA work takes place all over the globe, primarily Vietnam. We know right away that spying presents many moral dilemmas as he ends up sending a useful and likable informant to an almost certain death. But events intervene in the form of the assassination of South Vietnam’s president Ngô Đình Diệm and his brother, Ngô Đình Nhu. Then, less than a month later, John F. Kennedy is assassinated. And, in a flash, Christopher realizes that he knows who’s behind it. He just needs to collect the evidence and connect the dots, something he can’t do in his official CIA role.
Christopher’s theory is clever and seems plausible, especially for the purposes of the novel. And, best of all, it’s not one of the usual theories. There’s nothing about a magic bullet or additional shooters. There are a couple of interlocking conspiracies, with not all of the players knowing who else is involved. I don’t know that McCarry himself saw this as a likely possibility, but it makes for a good story.
But beyond the conspiracy, the book takes an interest in the human cost of the kind of work Christopher does. Of course, he’s put in danger many times and barely gets out of a couple of situations. But there’s also an emotional cost. Molly herself is put in danger by being part of Christopher’s life, and the relationship makes Christopher vulnerable in a way that could disrupt his work. Christopher’s reaction to the poetry he used to write shows just how much he cuts himself off from his emotional side. He doesn’t want to talk about it, and when he does, he dismisses any potential deeper meaning to the words, noting that his choices were just to create a rhyme.
And that leaves us with a man who is an excellent spy but perhaps on the way to losing his humanity. The central drama of the book is the unmasking of the conspiracy, but almost as important is Christopher’s need to save himself from his work.