The Magazine

Spymaster

Charles McCarry may be the best novelist of his kind.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By DAVID SKINNER
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Charles McCarry, the spy novelist, has a number of bestsellers to brag about, if not the numbers or recognition of John le Carré.

Still, many discriminating readers think he is better than le Carré. He is also the author of three grisly though impressive political novels, all of which trade liberally in satire and suspense. Praised for their prescience (two of them seem almost prophetic of shocking real-world events) they, too, can seem to be second-place finishers, with little of the cachet reserved for a Christopher Buckley or the audience enjoyed by, say, David Baldacci.

McCarry seems to have what's required for literary stardom: winning characters, beguiling plots, fine prose, illuminating research. And the problem cannot be a matter of credentials. A former CIA operative who has worked in many locales, McCarry also has experience in Washington, where he's circulated in high-level politics and the upper reaches of magazine journalism.

Sony pictures has an option on Shelley's Heart, and a forgotten Sean Connery movie was made of Better Angels, but Hollywood hasn't made enough of his work. Old Boys, a 2004 novel which revived McCarry's career, seems like an obvious candidate for a Clint Eastwood or Jack Nicholson production. In it, a likable bunch of old men, all retired CIA, take off for one last border-crossing, gun-toting, law-breaking adventure to find their missing friend, Paul Christopher, the sad-hearted hero of McCarry's spy thrillers.

It is McCarry's most fun book, and its commercial and critical success led to a frantic market for copies of his other novels, all of which had been out of print. But Overlook Press began reissuing them, and the Washington-set Shelley's Heart was re-released this year.

Old Boys is tighter than most of its predecessors. Tight is a subjective quality, of course, and nothing so annoys a writer as an editor saying his work "needs tightening." But there is no other word for how McCarry can sometimes give the reader just a little more action and information than can be easily assimilated: As the story lunges forward, the reader feels slightly, pleasantly behind.

Close to the time of printing, it turns out, McCarry went over his 185,000-word manuscript and cut out 57,000 words, with few cuts longer than 20 words in length. That is, he cut out as many words as would fill a novella, not by heaving long sections or extraneous subplots into the wastebasket but by snipping away word by word and line by line. This is like cutting down a small grove of trees by trimming away with garden shears.

McCarry has a talent for headlong conceits that intrigue the mind and focus the action of potentially long, involved stories. In Tears of Autumn, his second novel and a bestseller, the conceit was an alternative theory, utterly speculative though very compelling, of the Kennedy assassination. In Old Boys, it is another alternative theory, less persuasive but equally diverting, of the life of Christ.

He also excels at satisfying the reader's hankering for exotica. Old Boys takes off for Europe, Russia, and the Middle East where a group of Arab falconers are hunting the houbara bustard, an endangered bird whose amazing speed and low flight path inches above the desert floor have made it a tantalizing prey and put it on the verge of extinction. The next stop is in the mountains of Central Asia for a sporting match between Tajik horsemen and a group of Kyrgyz, called a buz kashi that McCarry explains is like polo but "a blood sport with the carcass of a goat as the ball."

A former National Geographic editor and writer, McCarry loves anthropological digressions that tend to reveal some basic human characteristic seemingly forgotten by the modern Western mind. Man is essentially tribal in McCarry's fiction, a truth as manifest in the jungles of Africa as in the hotel lobbies of Washington.

After buying a copy of Old Boys off the remainder table at Book Revue, a nice store in Huntington, Long Island, I started reading my way through McCarry's novels. Not regularly a reader of thrillers or spy novels, I was surprised at how they lit a fire in me. Sensing an essay in my future, I arranged to interview the author.

"The Harbor," the McCarry home in the Berkshires, is like the Berlin apartment of his characters Lori and Hubbard Christopher: "They lived ashore as they lived on their boat, everything ship-shape, with nothing more than they needed." And his cooking was reminiscent of food preparation in his books: simple, light, Mediterranean. For our lunch he made the best crab cakes I've had outside of Oceanaire.