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A Master Back in the Saddle

Charles McCarry, the obscure American thriller writer who can stand up to le Carré.

Book review, Dec. 17, 2011

The fall's headline-making plagiarist "Q.R. Markham" – the guy who assembled an entire book out of mashed-up excerpts from classic suspense writers and passed it off as an original work – explained recently why he had relied particularly heavily on the now little-known novels of Charles McCarry. Was it because he thought that the obscurity of the source material might conceal his thefts? Not at all, he explained. Mr. McCarry was his favorite novelist – "a truly ravishing prose writer, in any genre."

Say what you will about the plagiarism, you can't fault the guy's taste. Charles McCarry is an extraordinary writer. He's been publishing spy novels of unusual excellence for almost 40 years now – he's the only American writer in the genre who can stand up to John le Carré – nd yet almost nobody has ever heard of him. Most of his novels are available through a small press that specializes in neglected books (it's pointedly known as the Overlook Press), and his new novel, "Ark," his 12th, can be had only as an e-book or through print on demand. Q.R. Markham's thievery might be Mr. McCarry's most prominent endorsement right now.

It's a shame, but it's not surprising. Despite a number of his novels becoming best sellers, Mr. McCarry has never quite become a literary star like John le Carré just doesn't have le Carré's seductively seedy glamour. It's easy to lump the two authors together; both have the same air of insider knowledge. (Mr. McCarry worked undercover at the CIA in the 1960s, not long after Mr. le Carré did the same for MI5.) But the mental atmosphere of their books is bracingly different. Not for Mr. McCarry that gloomy, shabby, drizzle-shrouded world where the spies on all sides are interchangeable bureaucrats; Mr. McCarry has not the slightest doubt that his own hero, one "Paul Christopher" (tough, sensitive, inexplicably irresistible to women), is playing for the right team. Both author and hero have a sunny, clear-headed, inflexible faith in American values that would cause George Smiley to flinch in horror.

But Mr. McCarry isn't blind to ambiguity. His books are smashingly effective thrillers, but they also have an air of uncertainty that borders at times on the mystical. This has been part of his artistic makeup since his first and still most approachable novel, "The Miernik Dossier" (1973). It describes how a flock of intelligence agencies on both sides of the Cold War swarm like vultures over an obscure Polish functionary who may be about to defect. Paul Christopher is the CIA operative stuck with the job of figuring out if this otherwise-unimportant Tadeusz Miernik is legit or a cunningly dangled double agent. His search for an answer leads to a vivid chase story through Eastern Europe and the Middle East and an even more intriguing chase after the personality of Miernik himself – schlubby, irritating, untrustworthy, courageous and obstinately undecipherable. The book's insinuating message is that the spies can't figure out the answers about Miernik because their institutional paranoia prevents them from asking the right questions: They're so determined to see sinister clues in Miernik's behavior that they are blind to the raw muddle and cross-purposes of ordinary life.

This is the great theme of Mr. McCarry's novels: There's the world of the spies, there's the world that the rest of us live in, and the disconnect is unbridgeable. Mr. McCarry's strongest books delve into the hidden history of the intelligence community, and unfold it in opulent detail. Scattered through his work are several long and richly imagined flashbacks to the earliest days of the CIA that have the stately pace of classic literature. We get all the familiar elements of the spy novel, the fake passports and the dead drops and the moles and the dangerous border crossings, but they're illuminated by a sharply observed cultural specificity that suggests a James Bond thriller rewritten by Edith Wharton. (The best of these might be 1983's "The Last Supper.")

But Mr. McCarry has also gone in for a more problematic way of suggesting the oddity of the espionage worldview. He has built up a kind of alternate history from book to book that includes all manner of occult and kabbalistic conspiracy theories. He pulled this off most successfully in his second novel, "The Tears of Autumn," a wonderfully swift and sinuous novel about the CIA in Vietnam, almost a riposte to Graham Greene's "The Quiet American." It unfolds a fantastic but not wholly inconceivable version of the JFK assassination. After that, though, things in the spy-world start getting rather too florid for their own good. "The Better Angels" (1979) and "Shelley's Heart" (1995) turn on a stolen presidential election; "Second Sight" (1991) is about psychic powers; "The Old Boys" (2004) introduces a "DaVinci Code"-style revisionist history of the Crucifixion. And don't even get me started on Paul Christopher's increasingly convoluted backstory – the mystery of his long-lost mother, whose disappearance in Nazi Germany originally served as a melancholy symbol for all the irretrievable losses of that war, has steadily degenerated into an absurdly garish soap opera pitched somewhere between a 1940s Bette Davis movie and "Gossip Girl."

But I'm even more dismayed by another attitude that's increasingly prominent in his recent work. The spies used to be nostalgic about what they called the "real world," the place where ordinary people lived; now they regard it with contempt. From the vantage of the spies, America has gone collectively insane, and they no longer feel that it's worth defending. Even the CIA itself has been infected by cultural psychosis. In books like "The Old Boys" (2004) and "Christopher's Ghosts" (2007), the new generation of agents are a pack of whiny, multiracial, feminized buffoons who've forgotten, or are too arrogant to learn, how real espionage is done.

Of course, this kind of geezer-lamentation is nothing new. It goes at least as far back as Nestor's speeches in "The Iliad," about the good old days when there were real heroes like Theseus rather than narcissistic jerks like Achilles. But if Mr. McCarry wants to keep up with this theme, it would be nice if he treated it with more irony – or with any irony.

It's possible that this is the impulse behind "Ark." His new novel takes up his current mood of gloom and literalizes it with a bluntness that sometimes appears to be deliberately comic. It's not an espionage novel but a sci-fi global-disaster blockbuster about how the Earth is actually spinning out of control. Something has gone haywire with the Earth's core, and if nothing is done, the result will be Snuff City for America and possibly for the whole human race – it's not clear which, but neither prospect is one that Mr. McCarry finds entirely uncongenial.

"Ark" can't be honestly described as an artistic success. Specificity and intricate detail are among the charms of Mr. McCarry's spy novels. In "Ark," he is unwilling to expend the slightest effort to make his overfamiliar premise plausible. (If you've seen kitsch movies like "When Worlds Collide" or "The Core," or for that matter Roland Emmerich's unspeakable "2012," you're already way ahead of anything "Ark" can tell you.) The narrative is aimless and haphazard. The subplots fizzle out; the sci-fi background is the vaguest of doodles; the widescreen scenes of death and destruction, which are traditionally the point of novels like this, are shrugged off with weary disgust.

And yet I have to say, I had no problem zipping through the book in one sitting. Mr. McCarry's hero – a Bill Gates-esque zillionaire named Henry Peel, who sets out to save a selected portion of humanity by building a space ark – turns out to be one of his most freakishly interesting creations. Peel is somebody who looks and talks like everybody else but somehow radiates an unnerving otherness. As he races around the world putting together his impossibly ambitious super-spaceship project, it's impossible to tell if he's a genius, a hustler, a lunatic visionary or an Aspergerish nerd with way too much money. His rescue plan seems sometimes to be a heroic and selfless act of courage and at other times like a Nazi wet dream – and it's never clear whether he himself even recognizes that there's a difference.

It's heartening to see, in such an unlikely context, a character like Peel summoning up some of Mr. McCarry's old fire. What looks like a book about the end of the world, and good riddance, turns out to be about something closer to Willa Cather's famous line, "The soul of another is a dark forest." Mr. McCarry began his career by contemplating the impossible mystery of decoding a single individual soul; he's now in his 80s, and he's still hung up on the exact same problem. From Miernik to Henry Peel, nothing has changed – even as the universal darkness threatens to bury all, Mr. McCarry remains on the case.

This article appeared Dec. 17, 2011, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal in print, and online at WSJ.com.

Lee reviewed: Ark by Charles McCarry (Open Road, e-book, $24.99)