Saturday, November 6, 2010

Old Boys-Charles McCarry

Old BoysHave you ever read about some guy, dragged into a Good Will store by his wife and buys an old painting that ends up hanging in his garage for decades until somebody recognizes it as a “lost master piece"?

That’s how I feel about Charles McCarry and ‘Old Boys’. Picked this up in the Dollar Store while waiting for a price check….This is the most enthralling and intelligent “Spy Novel” novel I have read in years. Certainly the best American Spy novel and for my money, it and McCarry rank up there with John Le CarrĂ© in a select class of two.

First, a bit about the author. After writing for Stars and Stripes during World War II and working as a small-town newspaperman, McCarry was a CIA agent in the 1950s and 60’s in Europe, Asia and Africa and also a speech writer for the Eisenhower administration. He has lived in Washington, D.C., Florida and the Berkshires, rubbing tweed elbows with the powerful and the not so powerful. McCarry was editor-at-large for National Geographic and has contributed pieces to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and other national publications.

In the early 70’s he started writing his spy novels featuring ‘super spy’, Paul Christopher. Mysteriously, despite praise, from giants like Richard Condon, John Gardner, Tom Wicker, George V. Higgins,Christopher Buckley and Eric Ambler, McCarry's work never achieved popular success, and most of his novels had shamefully gone out of print. This was rectified by Overlook Press who started reprinting his novels in 2005. Apparently, they were a bit more successful the second time around and after 5 novels between 1973 and 1983 in this genre, he quit. He came back in 1988 with a historical fiction exploring the Christopher Family in the 17th century. Then he disappeared again until 1991’s Second Sight and then again in ‘95 with a sequel to ‘79’s The Better Angels Shelley's Heart . Then he dropped off the radar until Overlook started the reprints and in ‘05 he wrote Old Boys.

Okay, in Old Boys, Paul Christopher has apparently gone back to China, where he was imprisoned for 10 years, in search of his mother who disappeared in WWII with a Nazi Party Higher up. He hasn’t seen her in close to 40 years or more. Paul is reported dead, having rode a horse off a cliff in Xingjian province while on the quest. Enter Horace Hubbard, his cousin and also a former spook. Despite Paul’s funeral in Arlington, Horace doesn’t believe that Paul is dead. Neither does Paul’s daughter, Zarah. He enlists the help of a number of old colleagues', all now retired. And the hunt is on. The story from here entails a lot of globe trotting, a mysterious Scroll, supposedly carried by Paul’s Mother that was found on an ancient Roman ship wreck that would seem to relate how a Roman functionary ran an unsuspecting spy named Joshua Ben Joseph of Galilee during the time of Christ, with the help of a Roman citizen named Paulus of Tarsus. Paul's mother has carried this scroll for 50 years or more, first protecting it from Nazi’s, the Communist Soviets and now by a bin Laden type character, Ibn Awad who wants the scroll to discredit Christianity. Ibn Awad also has come into possession of some ‘lost Soviet’ suit case type nukes. The plot is almost indescribable, involving a Muslim terrorists, Soviet nuclear bombs; a Chinese forced-labor camp and a bad guy commie who may turn out to be a good guy; sundry ex-Nazis, ex-KGB men and double-crossers galore. Throw in a history of Falconry, a NASA satellite used to map the migratory patterns of the Houbura Bustard, and some Russian Mobsters and this can’t help but fail.

But it doesn’t.

It's a great tribute to McCarry's skill that he manages to keep all these balls in the air and carry the reader willingly with him making the story thoroughly believable, entertaining and real.

Understand that McCarry is not concerned with the tongue-in-cheek derrings-do of superheroes on the order of James Bond but with realistic character studies of complex human beings under stress and the interaction of different cultures and the characters that inhabit those cultures.

Add to this story line, a historian's concern for the 20th century and an elegant prose style that renders time and place with a sensuous atmosphere enriched by years of travel, and you've got all aspects of the master novelist. Note that I did not say "spy novelist." McCarry is writing more than genre literature. He is writing literature with a capital "L." whatever that is.

After having read what I thought was everything and everybody on the planet over the past 50 years or so, I somehow missed McCarry his first time around, which apparently so did the rest of the world. Now I have at least 8 novels that are at the top of my list, I do believe Old Boys makes it very high on my personal list of the decades best books and enjoyable reads. Find this, and McCarry’s other novels, you won’t regret it.


The Dirty Lowdown

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