Opinion

Charles McCarry’s unbearable masterpiece

2014 will mark the 40th anniversary of “The Tears of Autumn,” the great spy novel by Charles McCarry. I recently reread the book, and realized that the thesis McCarry posits is still difficult to take, if easy to believe. The story would make a marvelous film, but decades later, no one will touch the implications of “The Tears of Autumn.” It says too much that liberals, and even a few conservatives, won’t like.

At the end of this article I will reveal the plot of “The Tears of Autumn,” so if you want to read a great book and don’t want any spoilers, you’ve been warned. But before getting to the book, a couple items in the interest of full disclosure. Charles McCarry, who is now in his eighties, was a friend of my father’s, and is a friend of mine (my father passed away in 1996). One of McCarry’s books, “The Better Angels” — which some people claim predicted 9/11 — is dedicated to my dad. The two were in the Army together in the 1950s, and then worked together at National Geographic. The protagonist in many of McCarry’s novels is Paul Christopher, a spy whose cover is as a journalist at a world-famous magazine.

The second thing to mention before getting to “The Tears of Autumn” is “The Shanghai Factor,” McCarry’s new novel. While it isn’t as poetic as some of McCarry’s earlier works, “The Shanghai Factor” is nonetheless a smart and sexy thriller. It’s the story of an unnamed protagonist who works for the CIA in Shanghai. He meets a woman named Mei and, despite his training, starts having sex with her. Things become complicated when Mei turns out not to be exactly who she says, and soon the hero finds himself caught between American intelligence and the Guoanbu, China’s version of the CIA.

Reviewers have noted that McCarry “keeps the pages turning,” but to me the key to “The Shanghai Factor” is what makes McCarry’s other books work: understatement. In McCarry’s books the violence is always minimal, and happens organically out of the plot. As much time is spent on the different codes and meetings in a safe house that spies use as on explosions and gunfire. There is an understanding of the drama of a spy’s psychology as much as what weapon he carries. McCarry himself was in the CIA for 10 years, and the undercurrent of melancholy that runs through his work may have something to do with some dirty and unsettling things he saw while working for “the agency.” Paul Christopher, the protagonist of most of McCarry’s novels, is a former poet, and his ruefulness about what he has become, even as he understands how valuable he is to the United States, is often what elevates McCarry’s books from genre exercise to literature.

Here, for instance, is the opening of “The Tears of Autumn.” It deserves to be quoted in full, as it gives a sense of the coiled power of McCarry’s prose:

Paul Christopher had been loved by two women who could not understand why he had stopped writing poetry. Cathy, his wife, imagined that some earlier girl had poisoned his gift. She became hysterical in bed, believing that she could draw the secret out of his body and in to her own, as venom is sucked from a snakebite. Christopher did not try and tell her the truth; she had no right to know it and could not have understood it. Cathy wanted nothing except a poem about herself. She wanted to watch their lovemaking in a sonnet. Christopher could not write it. She punished him with lovers and went back to America.

To me that is an opening worthy of Hemingway or Fitzgerald; in fact, McCarry may even show more control than those two masters. He manages to say in one paragraph what most writers today would take 50 pages to describe.

And unlike a writer like John le Carré, who is supinely ambivalent about the superiority of the West, or Hollywood “imaginers” who keep making our enemies neo-Nazis and not jihadis, McCarry has got some huge cajones. He is fearless when it comes to writing about things that most people may not want to face. And it is here that I will reveal the plot of “The Tears of Autumn,” so stop reading and go buy it if you don’t want to know. McCarry’s protagonist, Paul Christopher, believes that Kennedy was killed in retaliation for the CIA-backed coup that overthrew the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam in 1963. In other words, JFK was slain by our own former allies in Vietnam as an honor killing for Kennedy’s role in a coup. Basically, “The Tears of Autumn” argues that Kennedy administration officials brought Kennedy’s killing on themselves — and then covered it up to preserve the myth of Camelot.