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The Great American Spy Novel

Photo by Brendan Bernhard

It’s tempting to say that Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn is the greatest espionage novel ever written by an American, if only because it’s hard to conceive of one that could possibly be better. But since no one can claim to have read every American espionage novel ever written, let’s just say that The Tears of Autumn is a perfect spy novel, and that its hero, Paul Christopher, should by all rights be known the world over as the thinking man’s James Bond — and woman’s too.


Originally published in 1974, The Tears of Autumn has been out of print for more than a decade. Thanks to the Overlook Press, which is going to be slowly reissuing several other McCarry novels, it is available once more. (Penguin has purchased the paperback rights.) Economical in length, tersely poetic in style, it purports to solve the biggest political mystery of the 20th century: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In a just world, or at any rate a braver one, the liveliest film directors of the last few decades would have fought to bring it to the screen. That this hasn’t happened can perhaps be explained by the fact that its interpretation of the Kennedy assassination quietly stings American pride in a way even Oliver Stone wouldn’t countenance.



McCarry, who is 75, lives in Massachusetts but spends his winters in Pompano Beach, Florida, where I met him in February. He was dressed for the 80-degree weather in a blue short-sleeved shirt, red shorts and clumpy sneakers. Photographs from the 1970s show him as dapper in a slightly tweedy way, with a full head of swept-back hair and a steady gaze on which nothing is lost. The hair is gone now, but the eyes, set wide apart above a long, narrow nose and a chin that retreats rapidly into his neck, have grown wearier. Many novelists who have written about espionage, including Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and John Le Carré, indulged in a bit of cloak-and-dagger themselves, but few did as much as McCarry, who served for 10 years, from 1957 to 1967, in the CIA’s covert-action department as an agent under “deep cover.” Based in Europe, he also worked extensively in Asia and Africa. It sounds impressive, but what does the phrase “deep cover” actually mean?


“Oh it’s laughable,” McCarry said in his throaty, David Gergen–ish voice. “What it means is that you have an ostensible occupation, a cover job, and that you don’t go about introducing yourself as a CIA agent. You don’t work out of an embassy, in fact you don’t go near an embassy, and all of your meetings and reporting take place clandestinely.”


“Did you find it very exciting?”


“No. It’s one of the most boring occupations in the world, punctuated by moments of ecstasy. You sit around for days, sometimes for weeks, waiting for something you think you have made happen, to happen. And sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Or waiting for an agent to show up. They’re famous for not doing that, or showing up in the wrong place or on the wrong day, wrong hour.”


Because he spent only 10 years in the CIA (referred to as “the Outfit” in his books), McCarry sometimes seems mildly annoyed that it’s the one period of his life journalists are interested in. Of course, he has only himself to blame, since almost all of his 10 novels have been either directly or indirectly about espionage. Starting in 1972 with The Miernik Dossier, an innovative concoction of fictional official reports and documents written by various agents trying to decide whether a Polish dissident is a double agent or merely an eccentric, and ending with 2004’s Old Boys, in which a group of retired septuagenarian agents get together for one last covert operation, McCarry has now written seven novels in which Paul Christopher, Autumn’s hero, plays a major role.


From the start, McCarry has been recognized as a genre writer of exceptional ability. Eric Ambler, whose A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939) is often referred to as the greatest thriller ever written, wrote that McCarry’s first novel was “the most enthralling and intelligent piece of work” he had read in years. Autumn was a best-seller (the only McCarry novel to achieve that status) 30 years ago, and remains his best-known work. Subsequent novels in the Christopher cycle such as The Secret Lovers (1977), The Last Supper (1983) and Second Sight (1992) have been praised by everyone from Elmore Leonard to Norman Mailer, whose own massive CIA novel, Harlot’s Ghost, owes McCarry an obvious debt. And when he has strayed from the espionage field, McCarry has done just as well. The Washington Post’s book critic, Jonathan Yardley, called McCarry’s 1995 novel, Shelley’s Heart, which is about a presidential election stolen through the manipulation of computerized voting machines, the greatest novel ever written “about life in high-stakes Washington.” The real mystery about McCarry’s work is why it hasn’t been more popular.


Timing may have something to do with it. The post-Watergate era was not the ideal moment to bring a virtuous CIA agent before the serious reading public. Paul Christopher is the kind of American one doesn’t read about much anymore — intelligent, sensitive, multilingual, nonviolent, at home anywhere in the world, and a talented poet to boot. And though Autumn and the other books in the Christopher series are frequently skeptical about the value of intelligence work, sometimes devastatingly so, they don’t express any doubt about the value of the Cold War struggle itself, and the CIA is depicted in sympathetic terms. Unlike Le Carré, McCarry never fell for the idea that there might not be much difference, on a moral level, between the CIA and the KGB, let alone the societies they represented. Despite his self-deprecating remarks about the tedium of the work, McCarry is quietly proud of what he did for his country. He won’t talk about it except in generalities, but one senses that his contribution was significant.


“If I were to give you a list of names of the people, world political figures, who have been assisted by the CIA, and even assisted to office around the world, you’d be astonished and probably wouldn’t believe it,” he told me on the patio behind his house. “But it’s very long, and the names are very distinguished.”


Though he didn’t write it until 1974, McCarry got the idea for The Tears of Autumn when he was still an agent, 10 days after Kennedy’s assassination. (In the novel, Christopher learns of the president’s death just as McCarry did — from a Belgian priest at the airport in Léopoldville, now Kinshasa, the capital of what was then the Belgian Congo.) Like his creator, Christopher is a CIA agent whose mission is to fund and encourage democracy movements in Africa and Southeast Asia, and the beginning of the novel finds him in Bangkok, meeting with a South Vietnamese “asset.” From there Christopher, who uses journalism as a cover, flies to Paris to meet with his case officer, Tom Webster. Later he attends a cocktail party at Webster’s luxurious apartment in the Avenue Hoche. One of the guests is Dennis Foley, JFK’s imperious “right-hand man,” and the topic of discussion is Vietnam.


Since Christopher has just been there, and briefly met the country’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, Foley pumps him for information. Diem has been conducting secret talks with Ho Chi Minh in the North, and Foley wants to do something about it. Christopher seems less sure. When he suggests that the best course of action might be to do nothing, Foley snaps, “Well, buddy, that’s not the style any longer.” One of the delicious ironies of the novel is how much the Kennedy administration sounds like the Bush administration. Though written 30 years ago, parts of Autumn now read like a post-9/11 novel posing hard questions about the correct and incorrect uses of American power.


As Christopher’s boss, David Patchen, says of the Kennedys:

“They got into the White House and opened the safe, and the power they discovered took their breath away. ‘Christ, let’s use it!’ Power really does corrupt. They think they can do anything they like, to anyone in the world, and there’ll be no consequences.”

“But there always are.”

“You know that,” Patchen said. “For those who never smell the corpse, there’s no way of knowing.”

Later in the evening, Foley recounts an anecdote about Kennedy that reads like an outtake from an intelligent Fahrenheit 9/11. A guest at the cocktail party refers to a rumor that the president likes to putt a golf ball around the Oval Office when he’s making a decision. Foley confirms that this is so.

“Yes, the boss putts occasionally. He’ll do it at the damnedest times. The other day a couple of us came in with a recommendation. It was serious stuff. A decision had to be made — the kind of decision that would drive me, for instance, into agony. But his mind is like crystal . . . He got up, grabbed his putter, lined up a shot, and tapped it across the rug. We all watched the ball roll. Somehow — this will sound corny, but it’s true — we all suddenly saw that golf ball as the symbol of the fate of a nation. Not a very big nation, not our nation, but a nation. The ball ran straight into the cup. ‘Okay,’ said the boss. ‘Go.’ ”

Though Foley doesn’t say so, the “decision” being made as the golf ball rolls toward its destination is to back a coup d’état in South Vietnam, overthrowing President Diem. Shortly afterward, Diem is murdered, and Christopher quickly puts anecdote and act together. And when, exactly three weeks later, Kennedy himself is assassinated, Christopher sees a connection where no one else does. The South Vietnamese, he believes, may have murdered Kennedy in revenge for the murder of their own president. Tit for tat. Blood for blood. Blowback. Anyone who has ever wondered why this amazingly cinematic novel has never been filmed can stop wondering right now: What is so disturbing about McCarry’s theory, and so unlikely to appeal to Hollywood, is that it essentially says that Kennedy’s death was his own fault.


Once he decides on the link between the deaths in Vietnam and Dallas, Christopher sets out to prove his thesis. To do it, though, he has to resign from the Outfit after being informed that no one in the government is in the least bit interested in his theory. (“I won’t have any son of a bitch saying that what happened to Jack in Dallas was a punishment,” spits Foley, now working for President Johnson.) Christopher does have some tacit Agency support, however, and his investigative journey takes him from Paris to Vietnam to Africa and back again. As in other JFK-assassination theories, McCarry’s has roles for Russians, Cubans and the Mafia, but it is a Vietnamese operation from start to finish, planned with an astrological chart, furnished with a hauntingly beautiful code name — le thu, or the tears of autumn, “because Kennedy was going to die in autumn in the Northern Hemisphere” — and executed by an unwitting gunman, Oswald, who has no idea for whom he is actually working or why. It is not only wonderfully written, but as many readers have attested over the years, strangely convincing as well.


“No one has ever advanced this theory aside from McCarry,” I was told by Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York and a specialist on suspense fiction. “But when I finished reading it, I absolutely believed that was what happened. McCarry’s a towering intelligence, an utterly brilliant man. You have the sense that this man knows everything, and that finds its way onto the page.”




Born in 1930, McCarry grew up on a farm in Plainfield, Massachusetts (population 87 in the winter), the youngest child in a family of compulsive storytellers, a family he says “was profoundly interested in itself, in its own lore.” A great-great-aunt had been captured by the Indians and subsequently married a chieftain and refused to come home. McCarry’s mother owned 10,000 books, and her son read steadily through her library. As a child, he devoured Zane Grey novels, tales of the Old West, about men living alone in the mountains, trapping beaver, making friends with the Indians or becoming their enemies.


In 1948, McCarry was accepted at Harvard, but decided to join the Army instead. He was posted to Bremerhaven, Germany, where he wrote for the Army newspaper, The Stars and Stripes. He was shocked by the state of the German cities, and the people still living in the rubble three years after the war. He enjoyed the company of German girls eager for American dollars and cigarettes, and noted the contrast between the promises of wartime propaganda and the war’s actual consequences. (The latter is an important word in Autumn. Asked what he believes in, Christopher replies, “I believe in consequences.”)


When he returned to America, McCarry, then 22, worked as a lumberjack and then got a job at an eight-page daily newspaper in Lisbon, Ohio, earning $85 a week. He wrote and edited the entire paper single-handedly, without wire copy.


“Lisbon was a beautiful little town that looked as if it had been built and designed under the supervision of Norman Rockwell,” he told me, sounding slightly nostalgic. “Beautiful federal houses, and elms — the elms were still alive then — and catalpa trees, which are very beautiful and drop these noisome blossoms on the sidewalk. The town was full of interesting characters and, most of all, beautiful girls. One day I was walking across the square in front of the courthouse, and one of them said, ‘Hi!’ I had a hangover, and said hello. She said hi to me every morning for the next year, and finally I asked her out. And I’m still married to her.”


McCarry’s only ambition was to be a novelist, but he also wanted to live a life that would teach him about the world and give him something to write about. The problem with most contemporary literary fiction, he thinks, is that it’s been taken over by the academy and cut off from the real world. (Today, successful 30-year-old novelists tend to marry successful 30-year-old novelists and live in Brooklyn, surrounded by other novelists; McCarry thinks more writers should follow Walt Whitman’s example, and fall in love with a streetcar conductor.) Before he joined up with the CIA (he was hired by Allen Dulles, the Agency head), he was a speechwriter for President Eisenhower, and even while he was in the Agency he kept his hand in as a journalist, writing profiles for The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire. Unlike Christopher, he didn’t use journalism as a cover, but on the other hand he didn’t tell his editors that he was in the CIA, either. Thus there is the irony of McCarry, a secret agent, interviewing Michael Caine in 1965 about playing a secret agent in The Ipcress File.


After quitting the CIA in 1967, McCarry worked as a journalist full time. He wrote a profile of Ralph Nader for Esquire, and Nader liked it so much he suggested that McCarry write a biography of him, which he did. Citizen Nader, published in 1972, was his first book. “I don’t think I’ve ever approached a subject with more sympathy or left one with less,” McCarry now says of Nader, who had no idea that his biographer had once been in the CIA. (He never asked, and McCarry didn’t tell him.) “Ralph was essentially a clandestine personality, and someone who’d spent 10 years in the CIA should not object to that, and I didn’t. But I think I understood him in terms of that experience, and saw what some of the underlying reasons for his behavior were. I never got to the point of disliking him, but I felt that there was a tendency for him, and particularly for the organizations he fostered, to cross the line between reform and subversion.”


After Citizen Nader, McCarry wrote his first novel, The Miernik Dossier, copies of which go for hundreds of dollars on the Internet. His publisher, over lunch in New York, asked him what other ideas he had, and McCarry suggested a nonfiction book raising the possibility that Kennedy had been assassinated by the Vietnamese in revenge for the assassination of the Diem brothers. His publisher “almost dropped his fork,” according to McCarry, and said that no one would touch a nonfiction book on that subject with a 10-foot pole. But what about writing it as a novel? McCarry said he’d give it a try. Without notes, without preparation of any kind, he sat down and wrote it in 60 days. He has never reread the book, and doesn’t need to. He has a prodigious memory. As a spy, he carried no address book and never wrote down a name or telephone number, keeping everything in his head. As a journalist, he never used a tape recorder for interviews, but would pretend to take notes to put his subjects at ease.


The Tears of Autumn sold half a million copies in paperback, and was translated into several languages. It remains his most famous novel, but for his fans it is only one side of a multifaceted work. Taken together, his Christopher novels form a vast intergenerational saga about love, espionage and betrayal that puts spying at the heart of human nature. (“Let me tell you something,” says an agent to an overly inquisitive 10-year-old girl in a later book. “You’re asking questions that nobody should ever ask and nobody would ever answer. People lie. You can’t just ask for the truth and expect other people to tell it to you. It’s too valuable. You have to watch, listen, read, remember, put things together.”) Spying, in other words, is just a glorified form of close observation. “Anyone who has ever conducted a secret love affair has practiced tradecraft,” notes McCarry.


The books span the globe — from Communist China (where Christopher is imprisoned for 10 years) to Washington, D.C.; from the Atlas Mountains (where his daughter, Zarah, is brought up alone by his first wife) and the jungles of the Congo to Berlin, Geneva, Rome, Paris. Though he professes not to have a style and not to want one, McCarry writes prose of unusual lucidity and grace. There are no rough spots or awkward words, and he never seems to strain. We see what he wants us to see as clearly as if it were projected onto a screen, and we feel and smell and taste and hear everything he describes.


Stories from one novel spill over into other novels, sometimes with Faulkneresque contradictions. To find out what happens to Molly, Christopher’s girlfriend in Autumn, you have to read the prologue to The Last Supper. The story of Christopher’s first marriage is in The Secret Lovers, while Second Sight describes the peculiar upbringing of Zarah. There is even a novel (The Bride of the Wilderness) that recounts the entire history of the Christopher family, going back centuries, before it reaches America. Many of the novels are love stories as much as spy stories, and often very sexual stories (McCarry writes well about sex). They also form a record of Christopher’s lifelong friendship, all the more touching because it is so formal, with David Patchen, his Washington boss, who was painfully disfigured during fighting in World War II. Both men signed up with the CIA at the same time, seeing in it an opportunity for “a lifetime of inviolable privacy.”


Though McCarry himself is classified as right-leaning in his political sympathies (read his Lucky Bastard for the ultimate satire of the Clintons, a Manchurian Candidate for the 1990s), Autumn is a powerful cautionary tale about the hazards of Americans getting caught up in alien cultures they cannot possibly understand, and it is not a book that a pro-war advocate would use to try to bolster his case now. (The Bush administration, like the Kennedy one, is subject to “a sense of reckless invulnerability,” McCarry believes.) What’s most striking about the novel, reading it today, is how fresh it is, how relevant, how not a single sentence in it seems to have dated by even an hour. As in this exchange between Christopher and a Communist journalist in Rome, the day after JFK’s death:

“You Americans kill whole countries and it doesn’t bother you,” Cremona said. “But for America to be wounded — ah!”

“You enjoy the spectacle?”

Cremona tapped his coffee cup with a spoon. “No, I detest it,” he said. “Politics is politics. Life is life. I hate Washington since the war — they don’t understand misery. They don’t know how to look into the mind of most of mankind, they think suffering — real suffering, which is at the center of everyone’s history but America’s — does not matter. But Americans are different, individual Americans . . . I’m very sad for them today. Maybe even I think there should be one country in the world where suffering is not permitted to exist.”

“I expected you to tell me that this assassination was a small thing, compared to Hiroshima.”

“No,” Cremona said. “This is no small thing. Nothing is so terrible as to kill a symbol . . . If a madman can kill an American president, then what is certain? ‘Ah,’ the miserable of the world will say, ‘it’s not possible, after all, to bribe history.’ Everyone thought America could do it.”

It’s not that McCarry necessarily disagreed with the critics of America. It’s just that he liked their own politics even less. “There’s nothing new about European anti-Americanism,” he told me. “To go to a dinner party of intellectuals in Paris in 1960 was like walking into a tiger’s den with a piece of raw meat in your hands.”


“What were they complaining about to you back then?”


“The same thing. Our reckless use of power, arrogance, insufficient sensitivity toward the Soviet Union . . . I think it’s Dmitri in Lucky Bastard who says that lies are the truth of the Left.”


“And is that what you believe?”


“Oh yes. But they’re also the truth of the Right.”


“But you seem to emphasize the lies of the Left in your books.”


“I think that’s because they’re much more visible, or have been until recently. I think too that the really wonderful hypocrisy of the Left — defending the Soviet Union, and hearing and seeing and believing no evil about it, and believing that it occupied the moral high ground, which the Left of course has done for about 75 years, only to find that the high ground was a mountain of skulls. So I suppose you would have to find some way to explain this to yourself. Denial.”


McCarry is coy as to how seriously he takes the theory he puts forward in Autumn. In Second Sight, however, we learn that David Patchen has his doubts: “It was too symmetrical. It was too much like Christopher himself: poetic, intelligent, subtle, logical. It was a morality tale in which the sin of pride is punished by a terrible act of vengeance.” A Vietnamese character in the book puts it even more bluntly: “I thought it was a very dangerous idea. It suggested that the most powerful man in the world had been assassinated by the weak, and that he was in some way responsible for his own death. Whether it was true or not, the thought was intolerable.”


Even to Hollywood, it seems. Though the novel has been optioned numerous times (as have several other McCarry novels), it has never quite made it to the cineplex. Owen Laster, who represents McCarry for the William Morris Agency, says, “There is interest right now in the character Paul Christopher by a filmmaker who’s thinking about ways of optioning the series.”


McCarry isn’t worrying about it, or about his comparative obscurity next to other giants of the genre, like Le Carré.


“I have to tell you, I’m a happy man,” he said in his gentle croak. “I’ve lived the life I wanted to live. I’ve written the books I wanted to write. No publisher has ever even suggested that I change so much as a phrase — commas and periods, yes — and I suspect that I have a lot of serious readers, in fact I know. And the other thing I would say with great immodesty, based on what people have said to me, is that the people who read my books tend to remember them, quote great swatches of them to me. I’ll take that.”