The Magazine


Charles McCarry may be the best novelist of his kind.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By DAVID SKINNER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

McCarry is tall and bald, with a hairless face and owl-like eyes that betray little but a constant flicker of mental processing. His manner is formal and restrained, but his conversation, like his fiction, has a naughty edge. Explaining why his prose avoids metaphors and similes, the 79-year-old writer gives an example: "If you say, 'Her [genitalia] smelled like the Rose of Sharon,' in the first place it's not accurate, in the second it's a diversion."

A gifted student who "never met a teacher who didn't hate me," McCarry was accepted at Harvard but, lacking money for tuition, joined the Army. There he learned the trade of journalism. Returning home to Massachusetts, he earned money cutting wood, then took his earnings to Ohio to serve as best man at a friend's wedding. After the nuptials, McCarry ended up paying the preacher--and broke. Checking in at a nearby unemployment office, he found a job as a reporter for the Lisbon Evening Journal and the Youngstown Vindicator. In the village square of Lisbon, McCarry met a pretty librarian "with an even prettier smile," Nancy Neill. Today, they have four sons and have been married for 56 years.

In April 1956 a friend wrote to him about a speechwriting job at the Department of Labor. After taking a writing test, McCarry started working for Secretary James P. Mitchell, who deputized him as his representative to a committee for the National Stay in School campaign, a good-government public relations effort to address the social illness of rebellious, disaffected youth. Soon the young speechwriter was recruiting well-known athletes and actors to record radio spots, which he wrote himself and for which he popularized the term "dropout"--as in "Don't be a dropout. Stay in school."

On weekends, he began writing for men's magazines--True, Argosy, Cavalier--with an eye to saving enough money to move, with his wife and two small children, to Majorca, where he was going to hunker down to write the Great American Novel. After rejecting a job offer to write speeches for President Eisenhower, McCarry submitted his letter of resignation. Before he left town, however, Secretary Mitchell called and invited him to lunch in his office. When McCarry arrived, Mitchell was waiting for him with another man, a lofty government figure to the young speechwriter. After introductions, Mitchell left, suggesting McCarry and the other man have a chat.

It was short, pleasant, and partly in French, the first of several foreign languages McCarry learned to speak. The lofty figure asked McCarry to join the CIA. McCarry asked: What could I possibly do for the CIA? "That is not your problem," the lofty figure replied. "We must find out what it is you want to do and make it possible for you to do it."

"Which," McCarry observes, "is the most succinct definition of covert action I have ever heard in my life."

The CIA contact said the agency would pay for his family's air fare to Spain and gave him six months to write. "I didn't finish the Great American Novel, by the way; I never did. But we had a great time in Majorca." Then, as planned, the 28-year-old writer started working for the CIA.

The family moved to Geneva, where Charles ("Mac" to his friends) took a job working for the director of the International Labor Office of the United Nations while pursuing operations for the agency. A singleton, "I worked by myself," under deep cover, with great freedom. "I could think up projects, mention them, and get them approved."

McCarry offers little more about his covert work, citing his oath never to betray the agency. He does say his description of operations work in his novels is "authentic," but is less vague only when talking about CIA culture. McCarry always describes intelligence work as intelligent work, and the CIA, he found, was full of gifted minds, many with literary tendencies.

"Nothing was so highly valued" at the CIA, he says, "as the ability to write." The writerly mind shares certain functions with espionage work: "An operation," McCarry says, "is a plot."

One can go further and say the spy is a writer--and vice versa. McCarry's fictional master-spy Paul Christopher is a recovering poet and has an actual day job writing for American magazines--just like his creator. Christopher's fictional birthday is the same as McCarry's, and the name of Christopher's family home in the Berkshires is also "The Harbor." Discussing whether Christopher's specific adventures as a spy are realistic, McCarry assures me that they are, saying that his own life as a CIA operator was similar to Paul Christopher's.