(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie APR 3, 2005)
Charles McCarry has long been one of the best authors of espionage thrillers, and he doesn't disappoint with his latest novel, Old Boys. He worked for the CIA years ago and is extremely familiar with the "Company's" history and operations. Obviously, this firsthand knowledge makes his work all the more authentic. I simply do not understand why McCarry is not better known, nor why his books, especially The Last Supper and The Tears of Autumn, are not considered classics. He is certainly in the same literary league with John LeCarre, Alan Furst, Eric Ambler and Ken Follet. I read McCarry's The Last Supper a few years ago and it is my favorite book in this genre - absolutely top notch! I have read most of his other novels since then, and have found them all to be superior. McCarry's nuanced, at times poetic, writing style, his ability to create real, flesh and blood characters who will move you, and his fast-paced, taunt storylines, put him at the top of the list for craftsmanship. I immediately picked up a copy of Old Boys, McCarry's 10th novel, as soon as it hit the stores.
Intelligence agent Paul Christopher, often a major character in McCarry's novels, is present in this one also. Unfortunately, the suave, sophisticated agent's appearance is brief. The novel opens with the aging, but extremely fit, Christopher dining with his cousin Horace Hubbard, another former agent. Dinner is excellent, the conversation interesting, if unremarkable. Paul Christopher vanishes the next day. Unbelievably, his ashes are delivered by a Chinese official to the American consulate in Beijing many months later. Christopher had supposedly died in a remote corner of China. After a memorial service in Washington, Horace, who is not convinced that Paul is dead, recruits four other retired colleagues - a kind of All Star bunch of "Old Boys," to go back into the field to find Christopher. Their first clue is a photograph found in Paul's study revealing an ancient scroll sought by both the US government and Muslim extremists. Hunted and hounded all over the globe, from Xinjiang to Brazil, then Rome, Tel Aviv, Budapest and Moscow, the old pros, with Christopher's beautiful daughter Zarah providing support, search for their comrade and the answers to his disappearance. These men may have mellowed but they are still quick on their feet...and on the uptake.
McCarry does not write "light." Like most of his novels this one is complex and tackles deeper themes than mystery and suspense. His characters are three-dimensional and the writing tight. There is also a nostalgia here for a dying breed, the agents of old who fought and helped to win the Cold War. While a very good read, Old Boys is not on par with Charles McCarry's best works. I do recommend it, however. It is still a good, long yarn that will hold your attention and leave you spellbound.
- Amazon readers rating: from 15 reviews
"The Last Supper"
(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie APR 3, 2005)
The Last Supper is one of the best espionage thrillers I have ever read, definitely putting Charles McCarry in the same literary league with John LeCarre, Alan Furst, Eric Ambler and Ken Follet. McCarry's nuanced, at times poetic, writing style, his ability to create real, flesh and blood characters who will move you, and his fast-paced, taunt storyline, put him at the top of the list for craftsmanship. There were actually moments when I found my eyes filling with tears, at a particular poignant passage, or at the loss of a favorite character. I don't do that easily. The man is GOOD! The background research is excellent and the historical details of the origins of the OSS and "The Company" are accurate.
The story takes us from the aftermath of World War I, in Germany, through World War II, the Cold War, and Viet Nam, with the creation of "The Outfit." This would be the OSS and the CIA. We meet the earliest agents and watch them and their agency grow in a turbulent world on the brink of one war after another. We are never completely sure who can to be trusted, or whose version is true. A few of the Outfit's leaders know early on that there is a mole in the system who is betraying American interests and getting agents killed. The book takes us all over Europe, to Russia and China, Washington, New York and Boston in the world of international intrigue.
The novel's main character is Paul Christopher, a sensitive, intelligent young man who joins the "Outfit" at the beginning of W.W. II. His mother, Lori, is a Prussian Countess, his father, Hubbard, an American, Yale graduate. They were never political people but hated stupidity and cruelty. Living in Berlin, Hubbard wrote novels and poetry, Lori countessed, they both made friends, traveled, loved each other and had a son...before 1939. It was during those prewar years that we saw a colorful sub-cast of characters enter the picture. Friends and relatives traveled to and from Europe visiting the Christophers, many to play future roles in the drama. There were various types of bohemian life, (Berlin was booming with bohemians), artists, Bolsheviks, musicians, etc., that latched-on to the family in Berlin. Some of these folks were desperate to leave Germany after 1935. The Christophers sailed many Jews and Communists out of the country on their boat Mahican. The Gestapo knew. When the war began, Mom, Dad, and Paul tried to leave for Paris but were stopped at the border. Paul and his father were told never to return to Germany. They were classified as American citizens. The mother was taken away. She was nobility, but she was German. The writing is devastating. This event will occur in Paul's dreams, repeatedly, throughout, giving the reader a terrible glimpse of the Nazi horror.
Paul's father, Hubbard, until his death, never gives up the hope of finding his wife. He changes drastically with her loss. It is with details and character development like this that McCarry leaves the crowd behind. Hubbard joins the OSS. As Paul comes of age, he initially joins the Marines but is also recruited into the OSS. We follow their lives and careers, as well as those of their colleagues, friends and enemies. The tension builds as we begin to see the network of betrayal and lies build, and wonder who is responsible and to what extent.
McCarry develops the characters, and their families in such a manner, that when you lose one, especially to violence, the loss is felt deeply. There is one scene when Hubbard tells Paul stories about his maternal grandparents, that are almost folk-like in nature, and I was awed at what an amazingly wonderful family this was/is. I forgot it was fiction for a moment.
The story moves to an extraordinary conclusion. I could not put this book down. I give it my highest recommendation.
P.S. - One of the Amazon reviewers commented that he thought two of the book's characters, a 60 year old senator and his 22 year wife, were too much...as in not believable? Hey, I was around in the '60s. There was most certainly a 60+ senator from the South with a 22 year old ex-beauty queen wife. Not only do McCarry's people seem real, some were taken from real life.
- Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Paul Christopher Series:
- The Miernick Dossier (1971)
- The Tears of Autumn (1974)
- The Secret Lovers (1977)
- The Last Supper (1983; reissue March 2006)
- Second Sight (1991)
- Old Boys (April 2004)
Standalone fiction :
- The Better Angels (1979)
- Double Edge (1982)
- The Bride of the Wilderness (1988)
- Shelley's Heart (1995)
- Lucky Bastard (1999)
- Citizen Nader (1972)
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- MetroActive on the books by Charles McCarry
- Sarah Weinman on Charles McCarry
- LA Weekly review of Tears of Autumn and biography
- DenverPost.com review of Lucky Bastard
- Guardian Magazine review of Old Boys
- WSJ.com review of Old Boys
- Berkshires Week review of Old Boys
- The Weekly Standard review of Old Boys (and previous novels)
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About the Author:
Charles McCarry was born in 1930 and grew up in Plainfield, Massachusetts. He was accepted at Harvard in 1948 but decided to join the army instead and was posted to Bremerhaven, Germany, where he wrote for the Army newspaper. Before he joined up with the CIA (he was hired by Allen Dulles, the Agency head), he was a speechwriter for President Eisenhower, and even while he was in the Agency he kept his hand in as a journalist, writing profiles for The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire. He didn’t use journalism as a cover, but on the other hand he didn’t tell his editors that he was in the CIA, either.
After quitting the CIA in 1967, McCarry worked as a journalist full time. He wrote a profile of Ralph Nader for Esquire, and Nader liked it so much he suggested that McCarry write a biography of him, which he did. Citizen Nader, published in 1972, was his first book.
He divides his time between the Berkshires (Western Massachusetts) and Florida's west coast.