By Charles McCarry
The Overlook Press, $25, 272 pages
REVIEWED BY STEVE HIRSCH
“Christopher’s Ghosts” is the latest in a series of often elegant novels that former CIA officer Charles McCarry has written about his fictional spy Paul Christopher, American intelligence and the Christopher clan.
This novel should find itself in many a briefcase and flight bag this summer.
Mr. McCarry succeeds because he has a real story to tell here, and he tells it well, taking the reader along a path with surprising twists and turns. It’s one that leads engagingly from Nazi Germany to the Cold War.
His characters are, in the main, believable and his evocation of place is solid and often superb.
The story Mr. McCarry has chosen to tell is of some of the formative events of the life of Paul Christopher, who we meet in 1939 as an adolescent, living in Berlin with his American father and beautiful German mother.
The Christophers are unapologetically a part of the American Establishment; they are New England WASPs of the sort who would tramp nobly at dawn through the mountains of rural Massachusetts for exercise and carry a watch that’s been in their family for three generations. The German side of Paul Christopher’s family is similar — stoic Prussian types with military bearings, representing the aristocracy of the Old World and its traditional values.
This is an important part of the book and of the way Mr. McCarry has chosen to weave his multivolume espionage tale. The world that Mr. McCarry has chosen to portray, and the world that Paul Christopher enters in the years after Berlin, is the world inhabited and created by the men who built American intelligence in the shambles left by World War II. These men were largely white, aristocratic, Ivy League types, a stereotype that has made for an easy target for other authors of spy novels.
However, Mr. McCarry has taken the opposite tack, portraying the founders of postwar American intelligence as adventurous idealists of strong conscience. They saw fighting Nazism and communism as necessary causes, and bravely took them up as a matter of honor and responsibility.
They took them up at great danger as well, and without the sort of prejudice sometimes reflexively ascribed to the rich and the white. The wartime Christophers in Germany have a history of risking imprisonment or worse by smuggling Jews out of the country.
This is the noble world Mr. McCarry has chosen, and he deftly portrays it in a way that entices readers in, rather than making it seem distant and removed.
The writing in this book is often superb, both in the evocation of Third Reich and, most especially, in Mr. McCarry’s polished description of the netherworld of Cold-War spying.
From his opening, with a trademark low-key sentence of graceful simplicity, Mr. McCarry evokes both the time and place of Germany under the Nazis, generally elegantly.
There are fine touches to his writing about Nazi Germany; he refers to “the Leader,” not “the Fuhrer,” usage that projects more authenticity because of its novelty. A paragraph on Jewish doctors’ status under the Nuremberg Laws intimates rather than explicates the laws’ significance. At other points he is more descriptive, and he chooses those times well. His description of one of his characters’ imprisonment by the Gestapo is one.
Some of this book’s writing about Paul Christopher’s younger years and about the book’s events in Nazi Germany flags, however. Although this seems very important to Mr. McCarry and although, on balance, he certainly does a serviceable job all the way through, parts of the book set in Nazi Germany are weaker than his writing about Paul Christopher as an adult spy.
He could, for example, lower the heroic tone on Paul Christopher’s mother, Lori. Likewise, parts of the narrative that occur during Paul Christopher’s adolescence seem forced.
There are occasional slips that seem to jump out. Early in the book, Mr. McCarry says that later generations have pictured the Gestapo as an assortment of freaks but they looked like ordinary Germans. This sentence helps set the tone of the book, but it becomes something of a wasted gesture (as Mr. McCarry might say) when he then describes a Gestapo characters in terms that could describe an ordinary German but seem immediately to conjure up the sort of Nazi caricature found in an Indiana Jones movie.
In another instance, one thing Lori Christopher dislikes in Dickens is the “palimpsest” of his style, Mr. McCarry says with unnecessary and distracting pretentiousness.
However, Mr. McCarry really regains his voice in the second part of the book, where Paul Christopher is an adult intelligence agent. Mr. McCarry is really at his best when he’s writing about spies and the “Outfit,” his books’ CIA.
Mr. McCarry’s characters are trying to establish a creative, unconventional, fluid espionage apparatus to deal with the new threats posed by the postwar world, and he seems to have little patience for the bloated bureaucracy the “intelligence community” will become.
Paul Christopher is a spy in the land of shadows and mirrors beneath the East-West Cold War rivalry, and Mr. McCarry writes about his hero in an engaging and seemingly authentic way.
For example, Mr. McCarry convincingly describes Paul Christopher’s demeanor as he attempts to pass as an East German, surveillance on a rainy night with cats and rats wandering through surrounding rubble and dancing to an orchestra in East Berlin while an ex-Nazi war criminal sips brandy at the end of the bar.
This is, all in all, a good book.
It is probably not as good as some of his earlier books, most notably “The Tears of Autumn,” which may be one of the two or three best spy books of the Cold War, but it is far better than the vast majority of spy novels published. It shows Mr. McCarry has no peer when painting a nuanced and contemplative portrait of American Cold War espionage.
Mr. McCarry’s writing at its best verges on literature and this book, like others he has written, does a superb job of depicting a vision of the time when American intelligence bridged the gap between the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War.
Steve Hirsch covers international trade for The Washington Times.