Tuesday, 12 August 2008


Charles McCarry must get bored with being called the American LeCarre, but Paul Christopher was his George Smiley, his name just as symbolic, and his past even more revealing. After producing the five novels that elevated his status among spy novelists, McCarry moved sideways, going beyond LeCarre in one sense, as he traced Christopher's roots back to frontier days in his epic historical novel, The Bride Of The Wilderness. Then he extended the saga, using Christopher's nephew, Henry Hubbard, before bringing the prototype back alongside Hubbard in the aptly-titled Old Boys (2003), a satire on both the aging of series characters and the DaVinci Code, but also an answering of some of the questions about Christopher raised in the last of those five novels. Now, in Christopher's Ghosts, McCarry addresses the central question of what turns men into spies.

Although loyalty is one of the central virtues of the 'old boys' who made up the OSS and early CIA, their values imherited and to some extent mimicking the 'honourable schoolboys' of British intelligence, McCarry, like LeCarre, is at his most interesting when he is examining the paradox of honour, loyalty, and trust among those who betray for a living, hence the brilliant ambiguity of the title of 'The Secret Lovers'. Those sorts of betrayals are at the heart of Christophers Ghosts.
In 1939 Paul is 16, living in Berlin with his writer father and his German mother, when he is set upon by some Hitler youth. He is helped by Rima, a Jewish girl his own age, whose father is a doctor no longer allowed to practice by the Nazis, but convinced this persecution of Jews is some a passing mistake. Because he is a German as well as an American, Paul is in vulnerable position, something recognised by Major Stutzer ('Dandy') of the Gestapo, who has his eye on the Christophers, perhaps because his one of his bosses, Heydrich, has his eye on Paul's mother Lori. As Paul encounters first love, the Christophers soon find themselves entangled in his relationship, and in their own, and when Paul turns down the chance at safety in order to try to save Rima, it ends in tragedy.

Twenty years later, Paul is working for the CIA, tracking Stutzer for his own revenge, when he crosses paths with the Mossad, who are tracking him for their own different sort of revenge. By now, Christopher is firmly ensconced in the old boys' network of the CIA, and readers who recall the man of the first five novels will see the already formidable sense in which he is closed off to almost everything except the value-systems of the job. McCarry invests the chase with enough uncertainty to keep it interesting, and enough paralleling of the earlier story to make it fit like a perfect puzzle. It ends in a fashion that is somewhat predictable, and might almost seem anti-climactic, except for the book's final line, which is one of the most perfect and telling I have ever read: making everything fall together, and echoing through all the other Paul Christopher novels with a sort of sombre toll. If Old Boys were a satire, this novel, beneath its historical trimmings, is a stunning coda to the Christopher series.

Christopher's Ghosts by Charles McCarry
 Duckworth £7.99 ISBN 9780715637654

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