Monday, June 20, 2005

Charles McCarry: Old Boys

Charles McCarry's Old Boys is a very classy thriller indeed. And perhaps that is not altogether surprising, because McCarry has written several other good ones.

Chief among the others was perhaps The Tears of Autumn, which first appeared (in the UK) in 1975. I read it at about that time, and I remember it rather better than I do The Da Vinci Code. It offered, among other things, one of the more convincing explanations for the assassination of the two Kennedy brothers.

Neither am I the only one to rate Tears of Autumn highly: one recent reviewer suggests that it might be the greatest espionage novel ever written by an American.

McCarry is now a bit of an old boy himself: 75, to be precise. As a young man, 1957 to 1967, he served as a CIA agent, under 'deep cover'. This is not, apparently, quite as exciting or dangerous as it sounds. However, it certainly provided the man with some inside information, which he evidently puts to good use.

Prior to his CIA experience, by the way, McCarry was in Berlin in 1948, where he noted the contrast between the promises of wartime propaganda and the war's actual consequences. Funny how history repeats itself, isn't it? When asked now what he believes in, McCarry says that he believes in consequences. Which I do too; I just wish they were easier to predict.

The lead character in Old Boys is Paul Christopher, a character who has starred in McCarry's books before. Christopher, like his author, is now getting on in years, but fortunately he is able to call on the assistance of several other elderly gentlemen with past service in 'The Outfit'. These old men form the team who fight the baddies.

The plot, as usual in these things, involves a mad foreigner who has a dozen or so cobalt-tipped atomic bombs which he intends to use to blow up American cities. Unless stopped. There is also a two-thousand-year-old scroll floating around. And an elderly woman who was forced to be Heydrich's mistress. And lots of other good stuff.

Our hero spends a lot of time in parts of the world which end in -stan (Kyrgyzstan and so forth), and which are, even today, almost empty. The reader is expected to know all about these places. On page 401 the author says: 'If I tell you that this spot was approximately 250 miles northwest of Tashkent, not far from Uckuduk and fifty miles from the nearest unpaved road, you'll know precisely where we were.'

Oh, right, there. Right. My Auntie Jean had a holiday there once. Caught a nasty case of the trots.

And so on.

There are many, many virtues in this book, and a wannabe writer in this genre should study it closely. For instance, the book is divided into ten parts, and the chapters within each part are short. Which is as useful a page-turning device as I can recommend to you. What is more, the chapters are not numbered consecutively throughout the book, but start at 1 each time you begin a new part. Which is clever. Because instead of finding yourself at chapter 93, and saying to yourself God, when is this bugger going to end, you find, instead, that you are only on chapter 8. I may be old-fashioned but I like that kind of thing.

The ancient scroll, by the way, turns out to provide a subtle, amusing, and all too credible explanation of how Christianity came to be the force in the world that it is today. If the Pope and his merry men got all worked up about the Da Vinci thing, they were chasing the wrong animal. This one is much more subversive.

The book also contains some valuable tips for those of you who are in training for the SAS or some other elite force. When working close to the enemy, at night, it is not a good idea to take a pee standing up. If there is a sniper downwind of you, he will sniff the air, smell your urine, and loose off a whole clip at you, even though he can't see you. So it's best to pass your water in a lying-down position.

No, I don't know what to suggest to Mata Hari either.

As you would expect from such a literate, well travelled and much experienced man, the brief author's note at the end is full of good stuff.

McCarry reminds us that, thirty-five years ago, when he first wrote about his villain, Ibn Awad, the idea that Awad was sponsoring a wave of suicide bombers was thought to be absurdly far-fetched.

The author refers to a handful of books that he read for background information, but everything else, he says, came from thin air. In other words, he made it up.

Now I happen to think that that is a perfectly sensible and proper way for a novelist to proceed. But there are those whose enjoyment of a novel is spoilt if the author mentions anything which doesn't exactly chime with real life.

The English novelist P.D. James, for example, once described a character putting his motorcycle into reverse. And so far she has had approximately 3,472 letters telling her that motorbikes don't have a reverse.

To which my response would have been, Look, this guy had one specially made, OK? So fuck off.