Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Charles McCarry: Christopher's Ghosts

Oh yes.

When I wrote to Duckworth (UK) and asked them for a review copy of this book, I told them that I had been enthusiastic about McCarry's previous thriller, Old Boys, (20 June 2005), and that I did not think I would be disappointed by this one.

Nor am I. Come this time next year, I expect Christopher's Ghosts to be a strong contender for the MWA's Best Novel award (see yesterday's post for the 2006 winner). If it isn't, someone won't be thinking clearly. And it won't be me.

McCarry has a long track record as a thriller writer, some outline of which I provided in 2005, so I won't repeat it here. Suffice it to say that he is now in his late seventies, and that earlier in life he did a ten-year stint 'under deep cover' for the CIA.

Christopher's Ghosts is a novel in two parts. Part One is set in Berlin in 1939, and centres upon an American family, the Christophers, living in that city. Paul Christopher is sixteen years old, and he is reading Balzac. Not, therefore, your average American teenager. He is, essentially, a European, but his family are the very best kind of Americans. The kind of Americans who will be familiar to anyone my age who has mixed with US citizens in the military, business, or government. I have the feeling that they are not as thick on the ground as they used to be, but I hope I'm wrong.

Berlin in 1939 was, of course, run by the Nazis. And before long we are reminded -- if we need reminding, and I certainly don't -- what a brutal, vicious, and nasty lot the Nazis were.

Incidentally -- and this has nothing whatever to do with the book here being reviewed -- I once knew a senior diplomat who had at one time been our man in Brussels. He told me, almost in passing, that you didn't have to be in Brussels very long to find out that the most important reason for the creation of the European Community was the need to control the Germans. Two world wars in one century was felt to be enough. Everyone in Brussels understands and accepts that, said my informant. Including the Germans.

Back to Berlin in 1939. The Christophers soon fall foul of the Nazi authorities; not least because they are smuggling Jews out of Germany on board their sailing boat. Paul Christopher's mother also has the misfortune to attract the sexual attentions of Reinhard Heydrich, who in real life was one of the architects of the Holocaust, and who eventually was assassinated in Prague in 1942; not a moment too soon.

The teenaged Paul falls in love with Rima, a German girl whose father, though a life-long Lutheran, has three Jewish grandparents and is therefore, under German law, a Jew; hence he is unable to practise his profession as a doctor.

Events in Berlin, as you would expect both in terms of history and genre, become more and more complicated. The Christophers find themselves persecuted, and worse, at the hands of Heydrich and a Gestapo thug named Stutzer. So be warned: this is a serious book, not a fairy tale; and it is immensely sad.

When events in 1939 Berlin come to an end, of sorts, we move to 1959, which by my count is twenty years later, not thirty as the front flap of the dustjacket suggests.

Paul Christopher has grown up and become a member of The Outfit, for which read the CIA. One winter night, as he passes under a streetlamp in a grey European city, Christopher briefly glimpses the face of a man walking in the opposite direction. It is Franz Stutzer, the secret policeman who brought about the destruction of the Christopher family in 1939. After that first brief glimpse, Stutzer escapes; and from then on the book becomes a chase story, as Christopher tries to bring the man to justice.

This is a very subtle book, full of character and history, focused on one family, its friends and enemies. It has the stature of a Greek tragedy, in that it makes the death of one person deeply significant; which, of course, it always is.

The war years, 1939-45, were hard times indeed; harder than anyone under the age of fifty or so can possible imagine, and this book gives us just a hint of that. If the ending doesn't make you cry, then you aren't human, so don't come back here any more, because you won't be welcome.

At its best, a thriller can do (at least) three things rather well. It can provide an enthralling story about people whose fate the reader comes to care about; it can give us insights into times and places other than our own; and it can provoke thought.

As you would expect, Christopher's Ghosts does all of these supremely well. In particular, this is a novel about the power of secret policemen, and it is, in my view, absolutely no accident that McCarry has chosen to write it now.

Any reader of this book who follows current affairs with even half an eye must surely see worrying parallels between what Christopher describes in 1939 Berlin, and what is happening in the UK and the US at the present time. In the UK, we currently have a very lively debate about the limitations on freedom which have been imposed by our government in pursuit of the 'war on terror'. (See, for instance, our Prime Minister's justification of these developments in last week's Sunday Times. And read the comments attached.)

One of McCarry's points is that quite ordinary people can be turned into brutal secret policemen without much difficulty. And surely Abu Ghraib rather proves it. Lest you think I am unfairly picking on the US authorities, let me add that many modern interrogation techniques have been developed or 'improved' by the British. After all, we've had plenty of practice in the last few decades, in places like Malaya, Cyprus, and Northern Ireland.

Having read Christopher's Ghosts, I find myself reflecting, and not for the first time, that the real fiction-writing talent is today to be found not among the so-called literary elite but in the 'humbler' genres. In fact I am inclined to propose a new law -- or at any rate a good working principle: the greater the talent, the humbler the home. If you're looking for intelligent, thoughtful story-telling, based on life in the real world, rather than some MFA-inspired navel-gazing and stylistic flourishes, then you're far better off poking around on the crime, romance, and SF shelves than in the more 'prestigious' areas of the shop.

In the UK, the publisher of the latest McCarry, Duckworth/Overlook, announce in their autumn 2007 catalogue that they are to publish nine titles by this author. With a bit of luck this will include all seven of the Paul Christopher canon, and I shall be able to read them in rapid succession and in the right order.

If nothing else, this will reveal, I think, that the author had at least the outline of a plan from the beginning. I notice, for example, that in the last one, Old Boys, there was an elderly woman who had been forced, once upon a time, to be Heydrich's mistress (see above). This nine-book read will be a real treat, and I look forward to it.

14 comments:

scrimp said...

I absolutely agree with you that the real writing about our world, the moral and even practical issues we face in a democracy and how to make the world better, even accurate history (re: Alan Furst)placed in the context of good stories and we learn rests in genre works. And I also agree on MFA inspired books. If you go back to the files on Publisher's Marketplace and follow the big deals made for books by MFA/former MFAs, try to find the books three or four years later. Millions of dollars for an MFA knock-off. Not to say some of them are not good. Can you think of any?
Thanks for the heads up on McCarry
Lyn LeJeune
The Beatitudes Network - Rebuilding the Public Libraries of New Orleans at www.beatitudesinneworleans.com

Andy O'Hara said...

With an endorsement such as this, I will look forward to reading McCarry's book.

While too young to experience the war, we Baby Boomers grew up hearing the chilling stories of the likes of Heydrich, who would give anyone nightmares. How right you are to draw some parallels to current events--the ones we know about and those we can only suspect.

Julia Buckley said...

"Having read Christopher's Ghosts, I find myself reflecting, and not for the first time, that the real fiction-writing talent is today to be found not among the so-called literary elite but in the 'humbler' genres."

Wise as ever!

elberry said...

As a writer of what could be called literary fiction, with a hefty university degree in The Canon of English Lit, i agree that so much excellent writing is in 'genre' fiction, e.g. John le Carre, Robert Littel, Ursula le Guin, and that most 'literary fiction' novels, about the lives of upper middle-class London types having mid-life crises and mistresses, are okay but deep down you know they're really just shit.

derbes said...

I am but recently introduced to McCarry. I read "Old Boys" some years ago, liked it, thought the praise a little effusive, and jumped at the chance to read "Tears of Autumn" now reprinted by Overlook in paper covers.

If the Grumpy Old Bookman and his readers enjoy McCarry, I'd like to suggest another in the same league, funnier, more cynical, a little less serious, but great reads: Ross Thomas. Thomas died some years ago, but you may be able to find his books nonetheless. The best are perhaps "Chinaman's Chance", "Missionary Stew" and "Briarpatch", but there are many that are worthwhile. Movies have been made of two or three of Thomas' books but they're all terrible.

Anonymous said...

Charles McCarry writes at a level no writer of similar genre has touched. Years ago I first picked up a copy of Last Supper from a pavement trader, and was so thrilled at the mastery to weave such believable stories and compose such real characters, that I've been hooked ever since. I've since read all his Paul Christopher books, and they have become constants in my life. Christopher's Ghosts has not reached our shores yet (I'm in South Africa), but I'm sure to be among the first to pick up a copy.
Thanks for the brilliant update!
Lerato Kojoana

Anonymous said...

There are significant inconsistencies in this version of Paul's return as a teenager to the States, compared to the tale told in Old Boys, are there not?

In the latter, his "escape" takes place on a train, and, if memory serves, his accompanying mother is detained, then disappears, with no attendant mention of the critical role played by Alexa in his young life; I don't remember a sudden return on his part - though I should warn I have a happy faculty of forgetfulness where fiction is concerned, allowing me to enjoy a re-reading in a couple of years almost as if the story were brand new to me:-)
Am I the only McCarry fan to notice this clothesless emperor?

Iwan Morelius said...

Dear Readers!

I fully aggree with your comments about Charles´books. They are just outstanding. I´ll try to get his latest thriller CHRISTOPHER´S GHOST published by a Swedish publisher.
I´m a Swede living in Spain for many years since I retired from the Swedish Army where I was a Captain for 30 years educating yountg soldiers in First Medical Care.

I think Charles is one of the most underrated spymasters ever. His books are wonderful reading.

Iwan (Morelius)

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