Monday, August 13, 2012

M is for Charles McCarry

I discovered the spy novels by Charles McCarry three years ago and read them all in a few months (including the two political thrillers that are only peripherally related). Looking into them again for this post, I want to read them all again.

I am featuring Charles McCarry in the Crime Fiction Alphabet for 2012 for the letter M.  Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for this letter.

Most of the novels written by Charles McCarry are about Paul Christopher, an intelligence agent for the CIA (called "the Outfit" in his books). Some of them go back and forth between events around the World War II years and the 1960's, exploring Christopher's youth and family history. The two books that do not include Paul Christopher are about other members of his family, the Hubbards. McCarry himself was a field agent for the CIA in the late 50's and into the 60's, thus he speaks with some knowledge about spy craft.

These are the books in the series plus the two related books.

With Paul Christopher as the main character:
1. The Miernik Dossier (1973)
2. The Tears of Autumn (1974)
3. The Secret Lovers (1977)
4. The Last Supper (1983)
5. Second Sight (1991)
6. The Old Boys (2004)
7. Christopher's Ghosts (2007)

The Better Angels
Shelley's Heart

I read The Better Angels and Shelley's Heart following Second Sight, before I read Old Boys. I enjoyed all of the books, and for me, it worked well to read the two political thrillers as a part of the series. One novel by McCarry, The Bride of the Wilderness, which I have not read, goes back to the early history of the US and tells about ancestors of Paul Christopher. As described at the Stop, You're Killing Me! site, the spy novels are about "Paul Christopher, an American secret agent and poet, and his family, in an overlapping series jumping backward and forward in time."  I refer you to the Charles McCarry page at that site for the time chronology of the books.

In order to prepare myself for writing this post, I started re-reading the first novel in the series (and the first novel written by McCarry), The Miernik Dossier. When it was published in 1973, it was praised by Eric Ambler ("The most intelligent and enthralling piece of work I have read for a very long time."), among others. It is not my favorite in the series, but it is certainly a unique and entertaining novel.

The story is told entirely through documents, including but not limited to transcripts of conversations and diary entries. With this story-telling device, McCarry tells the story through five different characters. In this novel, Paul Christopher is not as much the focus as in later books.

The Tears of Autumn, the second novel in the series, proposes one possible solution to the John F. Kennedy assassination question. Several other novels in the series cover a large period of time and go back to earlier times in the history of Paul Christopher's family.

McCarry is an author who generates a lot of discussion about genre fiction vs. literary novels and whether the novelist expands beyond the genre. Such discussions always irritate me, although I don't know why, since (almost) all I read is mystery novels anyway. When I do read and enjoy a non-mystery novel, I see (and enjoy) the mystery elements within the story it is telling. And most mysteries I enjoy offer delights beyond the solving of the mystery.   


Scott said...

Interesting, I love spy stories. :)

gautami tripathy said...

I have read only one book by this author. Will hunt for more...!!

Here is my CFA: M post

Anonymous said...

Tracy - Oh, how interesting! I'm intrigued by the idea of telling a story entirely through documents. That's innovative! Normally I'm not one to reach first for a spy thriller, but this series sounds like it's more than worth trying.

TracyK said...

All of the books (except the political thrillers) have elements of a spy thriller, but they are so much more. After the first two books, they are sagas of an interesting family.

Peter Reynard said...

Tracy - This sounds really cool and I think the best recommendation is that you read them all in a few months. Does the first book use different fonts to distinguish between the different documents? For some reason, this always bugs me.

Bill Selnes said...

TracyK: I enjoyed your thoughts. I liked McCarry in Secret Lovers but am not as enthusiastic as yourself. I did think of John Le Carre as I read the book.

TracyK said...

You know, I just finished this a day ago, but I don't the book with me. It may be that some of the documents had different fonts, but it was not noticeable to me. I did have some problems keeping track of who the diary entries were for (they were labeled, but not in bold or something to distinguish them) or what type of documents they were. But probably just because I read too fast.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Really enjoyed the post TracyK - McCarry is one of those authors I've heard a lot about over the decades but I don't think I have ever actually picked one up - so thanks for the prompt!

Kathleen George said...

Love your essay. Oh, for the time to read all I want to read! McCarry is a great stack to have on the shelf.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Kathleen. I know what you mean about wanting more time to read.