Saturday, September 9, 2023

The Mulberry Bush: Charles McCarry

Back in 2009, I discovered the spy fiction of Charles McCarry. He wrote a series about Paul Christopher, an intelligence agent for the CIA. I read all of the books in that series, plus a couple of political thrillers that feature other members of the Christopher family.  I was very impressed with McCarry's writing. Those nine books were written between 1971 and 2007. 

More recently McCarry published two standalone books in the spy fiction genre, The Shanghai Factor in 2013 and The Mulberry Bush in 2015. Today I am discussing The Mulberry Bush, which I read in early August.

This story is about a man whose main focus is getting revenge for his father, a spy for the CIA whose career ended in disgrace and led to him becoming homeless. The son succeeds in getting a job with the CIA and fortunately does so well that he is given an important position and assignment at Headquarters. He makes connections and builds relationships with agents in South America and Russia. Via this route he meets Luz, the daughter of a famous Argentinean revolutionary. She also has a hatred for the CIA, and they become allies in a plan to cause the downfall of that agency and its leaders.

Now all of this sounds really over-the-top, unreal and straining disbelief, but it all worked for me. It is a real roller coaster of a story, confusing, but most spy fiction is. A lot of characters, no one you can trust, also true of most spy fiction. 

As usual, I found McCarry's writing to be fantastic. I was immersed in the story and did not want to put the book down. The main character, the spy seeking revenge, is never named and he tells the story. I like stories with first person narration. You only know the story from one point of view, everyone else is a question mark. I was always focused on the main character's goal and wondering what his plan was to achieve it. 

This is not a perfect book. I sometimes complain about books with many unlikeable characters; this book is full of them, and I can name only one or two that I liked. I don't think that spoils a book necessarily. I did not particularly like the main character, but I sympathized with his goal to avenge his father. There were some fascinating characters that he meets along the way,  and maybe that is what saved the book.

Both The Shanghai Factor and The Mulberry Bush focus a lot on sex and relationships that were primarily about sex. I don't remember this being the case in the earlier books. Sex and relationships were there, but just not so prominent. Part of the problem with this is that the depictions of female characters are lacking.  Luz doesn't get enough to do to make any impact and she just seems to be an avenue to achieving the son's revenge.

So, to summarize. This was a book I liked very much; if you like spy fiction, it is highly recommended. However, if you want to try reading Charles McCarry for the first time. I would start with the Paul Christopher series. I don't know if it matters if you read them in order; I did. 


Publisher:  Mysterious Press, 2015.
Length:      308 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     US; South America; Middle East
Genre:      Spy fiction
Source:     I purchased my copy. 


Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Tracy, The Mulberry Bush sounds interesting because the main character is to a certain extent an unreliable narrator. He loved his father and wants revenge which is understandable but that also means he may not know himself all that well because people bent on revenge often don't see things clearly and get themselves into a bigger mess.

I was thinking as I read your very fine review about double agents and I am fascinated
by the Cambridge 5 back in the 1930's: Kim Philby and his classmates. It would make for such an interesting novel or nonfiction.

TracyK said...

Kathy, It is true that the narrator is a type of unreliable narrator in that his narration does not share everything that he knows with the reader. Of course, in spy fiction, the reader is rarely getting all the information anyway.

Over the years, I have read several novels that touch on the Cambridge 5 in some way. The ones I remember are Robert Littell's very, very long novel The Company and Charles Cumming's The Trinity Six, that proposed a sixth member of the Cambridge group. I was recently reading a list of novels that were based in some way on the Cambridge 5, and I had read some of them, but I didn't notice the connection when I was reading them.

Cath said...

I'm not much of a reader of spy fiction but I enjoyed your review. Thinking Peter might enjoy this though. (I love how we two include our husbands in our comments, I think if we ever met the four of us would not stop talking! LOL!) That said, like you and Kathy, the Cambridge 5 interest me and we watched a doc. about it recently - fascinating. Do you know if there's a good non-fiction book about it by any chance?

Margot Kinberg said...

It's always interesting to me, Tracy, that over-the-top situations that would not work well in other crime fiction do work well in espionage fiction. Maybe readers are willing to put aside disbelief since the spy life is outside most people's experiences? Whatever the reason, I've noticed that in my own reading. This one sounds interesting in that it's got a mix of personal tension and the larger suspense in the novel.

TracyK said...

Cath, I have done some research but haven't found much on the entire group of spies at all. I have found books that might be interesting on specific members of the group. I don't know much about Guy Burgess, for instance. Glen found a book by their Soviet handler that we are going to look for: My Five Cambridge Friends by Yuri Modin. (The book sale is soon!) And if I find anything on the entire group that looks good, I will let you know.

I think Peter could provide me with some good hints for spy fiction I could try. I have my favorite authors and have more books by them to explore, but I always am willing to try authors that are new to me, old and new.

Lark said...

This one does sound a bit over the top, but I'm glad you enjoyed it. I think I would probably like one of his earlier books better.

TracyK said...

Margot, sometimes, not always, reading a spy thriller is like watching a thriller on film. Because the action goes so fast, you miss the weaknesses. This one is not that kind of a thriller nor does it move that fast, but I think it is along the same lines. Or maybe it is just that I love McCarry's writing.

TracyK said...

Lark, if you ever get a chance, do try one of his earlier books.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Phil loved his books. I struggle with spy fiction but I did get through the TV series of SLOW HORSES and quite liked it. But more for the characters than the plots.

Sam said...

This sounds good, especially since I've been trying to read more spy fiction since pretty much devouring Mick Herron's Slough House series. I like the idea of danger coming from within such a secretive organization, too. But you've made me wonder a bit if I shouldn't start out with one of the author's earlier ones.

TracyK said...

Patti, the Paul Christopher series is very good and I hope to reread more of them.

The characters are the best part of the Slough House series of books, for me, although the plots and the writing are good also. Also a good bit of humor.

TracyK said...

Sam, the Paul Christopher series spans from soon after WWII up to around 2000, although I don't think all the books go in chronological order. So a lot of it covers the Cold War period. Lots of different international settings.

Clothes In Books said...

I am trying to remember whether I have read this author, I need to check. I trust your spy fiction recommendaions so should try one of the earlier books you mention.

TracyK said...

Moira, I did like the Paul Christopher series more than his later standalone mysteries. Maybe because there was a continuing character. But each was very different. And even the later ones were good reads for me.