If you wanted to write a resume for a spy novelist, you couldn't do much better than Charles McCarry. The 77-year-old author of 10 novels and numerous nonfiction works was a correspondent for Stars and Stripes in the US Army, a speechwriter in the Eisenhower administration and, from 1958 to 1967, a deep-cover CIA operative in Europe, Asia and Africa.
"I was sometimes gone for six weeks at a time," he told an interviewer a couple of years ago. "The phone would ring at midnight, 'You're needed in Mogadishu,' and off I would go. And my wife, who had either three or four little kids and was living in a foreign country, didn't know where I was going or when I was coming back."
Six of McCarry's novels tell the saga of the Christopher family, including his last, 2004's Old Boys, which finds the spy Paul Christopher taking on one last mission at the end of his life, having survived years in a Chinese prison.
McCarry backtracks in Christopher's Ghosts. Set on the eve of World War II, Ghosts is a high-caliber literary thriller with tension so thick and characters so twisted that you might consider reading it with a gun under your pillow.
Paul Christopher, future OSS and CIA master spy, is a boy of 16 in the new novel, living with his aristocratic, liberal German mother, Lori — well-educated, level-headed, free-spirited and, of course, sublimely beautiful — and his Ivy League father, Hubbard — "horse-faced," brilliant and completely without fear, guilt or inhibitions — in Berlin just before the war.
Hubbard, a novelist and adventurer, is writing The Experiment, in which he records each day's experience — no matter what happens — as fiction.
It is both a courageous and utterly ludicrous thing to do under the Third Reich, where everyone watches the neighbors for fissures in their Nazi armor.
In a previous book, McCarry detailed how the Christophers smuggled Jews and other enemies of the Nazi state to freedom from Lori's home island of Rugen across the Baltic Sea in their small yawl Mahican. The youngster Paul was discovered stowed away on one voyage and allowed to come along on subsequent ones.
Consequently, the Nazis, in the form of General Heydrich and Major Stutzer, top officials in the regime, have declared the Christophers enemies of the state and turned up the gas under the family, frequently pulling them off the street or out of their apartment for questions and "light" torture.
"There was no real need for the secret police to prove these charges. On his own authority Major Stutzer could send them to a concentration camp or even summarily execute them, but for reasons of his own he wanted to prolong the questioning, to maneuver them into full confessions."
Stutzer, whose conscience, like his compassion, was apparently retarded at birth, sees the arrogance of the Christophers as a challenge to his perfect record with suspects — that is, breaking them physically and mentally.
Heydrich, whose military posture is unbalanced by "broad womanly hips," wants to conquer the Baronesse Lori.
This "man who could order the immediate death of anyone in Germany and beyond" has special torture for Lori; when Stutzer grabs Paul and Hubbard, he spirits her off to his country lodge for elaborate "dates."
Paul falls in love with a remarkable young woman named Rima, whose father, a World War I hero and physician, has been classified a Jew and forced to suffer the persecution such an indictment carries.
In the Nazis arcane system, Rima is not technically Jewish; nevertheless, she is forced to bear Stutzer's wrath.
The women in Ghosts are its most tragic characters.
The last half of the book flashes forward to 1959, when Christopher, a cleanup hitter for the Outfit, discovers Stutzer in a gloomy European city.
Once quite the dandy (and presumably gay), Stutzer has adapted to the streets, his intense paranoia at being recognized fueling his survival. Stutzer eludes Christopher this time, but the spy is intent on revenge and tracks the unrepentant Nazi to still-desolated Berlin at the time when streets are being torn up and houses razed to make room for the wall.
"Cat stink and the acid smell of long-dead fires lingered in his nostrils. He heard tiny noises in the rubble — the cats again and the rodents. In the velvety darkness he apprehended movement, shapes, the first signs of first light. He tasted and felt a fragment of sausage between two of his teeth. He felt the rough ground beneath his feet. His head itched."
Many critics believe that Charles McCarry is the finest espionage writer working today. Count me in. He writes with precise attention to detail yet manages to encompass the big picture of the bloodiest century in history, avoiding unnecessary drama and excessive heroics. This is the way it really was, the reader thinks upon digesting a McCarry book, which is the finest compliment that can be paid any novelist.
By Charles McCarry
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