- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 19, 2004

A fellow across town had an odd criticism of John Weisman’s Jack in the Box (William

Morrow, $24.95, 322 pages). He sniffs that Mr. Weisman spends too much time discussing arcane espionage tradecraft. Oh, bosh.

I frequently find myself snorting and hurling aside thrillers involving, say, a murder in the underground parking garage at Reagan National Airport, or a woman who is killed by a blast from a 20-gauge rifle. (Mull those plot-twists; both got into print, from serious publishers.)

Thus it is refreshing to spend an afternoon with an author who writes intelligently about the new focus of intelligence — counterterrorism — and about how the CIA became a haven for cautious careerists following the Church Committee debacle of the 1970s. (Many of Mr. Weisman’s characters are thinly disguised real people, especially a very sexy woman character who is easily identifiable in the Washington intel community.)

The thrust of “Jack in the Box” is a spook thriller oldie: the quest for a mole. A defrocked CIA Moscow station chief, Sam Waterman, is alerted to the return to Washington of CIA officer Edward Lee Howard, who defected to the USSR years earlier. (The novel’s title derives from the pop-up device Howard used to simulate a passenger in his car, thus deceiving watching FBI agents as he tumbled off into the night.) Howard’s story is that the White House knew in advance of the September 11 attacks, and that a mole kept the information from the president.

Howard then vanishes again, and Waterman is off on a mole chase made all the more interesting by Mr. Weisman’s wide use of spy lore, references to actual cases, and detailed tradecraft. In the interest of literary mischief, the author even employs the occasional blacked-out word, as if his manuscript went through a security vet.

Mr. Weisman is a rare writer who has made the bestseller lists in both fiction and nonfiction categories. “Jack in the Box” bolsters his growing stature as one of the best in the thriller business.

• • •

Another writer with a good feel for tradecraft is the sometime Washingtonian Charles McCarry. His aptly titled Old Boys (Overlook Press, $25.95, 480 pages) is seemingly the swansong of a man who has ranked among the titans of spy fiction for decades.

Of eight previous McCarry spy books, four featured the CIA officer Paul Christopher, a poet and a man of worldly grace and charm, one of the “old boys” who created the CIA. Christopher’s forte in the earlier books was a recognition of the moral ambiguities of his profession, and of the differing ways humans behave under stress.

We find Christopher in his seventies, retired and living quietly in Georgetown after a decade of captivity in Communist China. He dines in his O Street NW home with cousin Horace Hubbard, another “old boy” to whom he gives power of attorney, and then vanishes in a cloud of ambiguity.

In due course, the Chinese embassy delivers an urn containing what it claims are Christopher’s ashes but with no explanation as to how he died, supposedly in remote mountains.

Per instructions, Hubbard finds a letter left by his cousin that sets us off on a yarn I hesitate to summarize. Briefly, consider “The Da Vinci Code” meeting Osama bin Laden, and take it from there. (Can you imagine Jesus Christ as an unwitting agent of Roman intelligence, crucified because a covert operation went awry? Beyond that, I say no more.)

So what happened to Christopher? Here is where Mr. McCarry blends his rich imagination with an insider’s knowledge of spook-dom. The author’s insider knowledge stems from the years he spent undercover for the CIA’s clandestine services in Europe, Africa and Asia. He recognizes that espionage often lacks the flash-and-dash of James Bond’s exploits. Hear the musings of one of his old boys as he listens to scratchy sitar music in a New Delhi restaurant:

“I was reminded, as if an iris had opened in my brain, of the everyday boredom of a life in espionage. One is always waiting for someone who does not show up, for something that does not happen.”

To help solve the mystery of Christopher’s disappearance, Hubbard recruits five “white-haired old cut-throats,” all old boys. “Taken as a group,” Mr. McCarry writes, “they could be regarded as the all-time backfield of the old Outfit.”

These rogues include a man “who knew Arabs and Arabia in the way a baseball fanatic knows batting averages,” and another “who had recruited more Russians and other Soviet bloc types than there are snowflakes in Siberia …”

The prospect of new adventure excites the out-to-pasture officers. As one laments about the ailments of age, “The six of us were probably paying more, collectively, for pills than we had ever spent as a group on alcohol, and that’s saying a lot.” The core of the book is how these veteran officers go about searching for their vanished comrade.

Mr. McCarry’s closing chapters give one all the thunder and lightning needed for a good summer read. In due course, after the Christopher mystery is resolved, the old boys gather for a quiet reunion. Conversation is sparse, as it tends to be in their real world.

As Hubbard reflects, “There was no reason to tell one another what we already knew, which was that whatever we had done did not really matter. Our work did not exist, had never existed, in the annals of history or the memory of those who had asked us to do it.

“All of it, going back to our dewy youth, was a laugh, a prank, a game, and like any other game, the one we had just played, our last, had not really changed a thing …

“Or so we hoped, although we knew there would always be another bomb, another believer, another game of blindman’s bluff, and one day a different outcome.”

• • •

And, finally, a glance at man generally acknowledged as the father of the spy thriller genre, the British writer John Buchan, renowned for his 1915 book “The Thirty-Nine Steps.”

Buchan laughingly dismissed “Steps” as a “shocker” and most aficionados (myself included) know little of him beyond this single work. But the full sweep of this remarkable man’s career is well told by Andrew Lownie in John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier (David A. Godine, $19.95, 364 pages, illus.).

Any professional writer must blink at Buchan’s energies. In his lifetime (1875-1940) he published more than 100 books, ranging from his “shockers” to serious biographies, poetry, and children’s books; during a brief stint as a lawyer he even wrote a book on international taxation.

While serving as a propaganda officer during World War I he concurrently wrote, in serial fashion, a million-word history of the conflict.

Such a workload would stagger a stout horse. But there was more. Even as he turned out as many as six books annually, Buchan was, variously, the number-two officer of a major British publisher, a war correspondent, deputy chairman of the Reuters news agency, a high official of the Presbyterian Church, a member of parliament, and, lastly, governor general of Canada. He was also, by Mr. Lownie’s account, a decent husband and father.

To be truthful, the passage of a century makes much of Buchan dated reading. Nonetheless, a swirl of the cloak and a clink of the dagger for the fellow who started it all.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]aol.com.

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