(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Otto Penzler in The Armchair Detective, like many other reviewers, highly praised Charles McCarry, saying he stood out among the American creators of believable spy novels, a very difficult category, because of the brilliance of his plots and characterization and his poetic style of composition.

McCarry’s spy hero, Paul Christopher, is handsome, a Yale graduate, and a poet. His father was also a spy, killed in Berlin in a Soviet setup. Christopher’s mother, a courageous anti-Nazi German who helped many Jews escape the Third Reich, was sent to a concentration camp during the war and then vanished. As a loner, it is difficult for Christopher to maintain relationships with the women who fall in love with him, and it is not surprising that an early marriage ends in divorce.

This composite biography of Christopher can be gleaned from several of McCarry’s novels. Each work of fiction, in fact, is a revelation, delving not only into Christopher’s background but also into the widening network of contacts that implicate him in the major events of the Cold War. To read the sequence of the Paul Christopher novels is not only to journey through the complexity of contemporary history but also to constantly revise perceptions of Christopher himself. Thus biography, history, and psychology are melded into the plots of the spy novels, making McCarry’s handling of the genre so sophisticated and elegant that he has few equals.

The Miernik Dossier

McCarry’s stunning debut novel, The Miernik Dossier, is also an innovative work that is reminiscent of such great novels as William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936). Miernik is a Polish diplomat who wishes to defect to the West, but is he a double agent? The novel takes the form of a dossier, which includes reports from Paul Christopher and his superiors, excerpts from Miernik’s own writings, and other materials that typically are included in intelligence reports. Christopher is doubtful all along that Miernik is duplicitous; that is, Christopher tends to think that Miernik is what he says he is. However, mired in the Cold War world of deceit (Federal Bureau of Investigations director J. Edgar Hoover titled one of his anticommunist books Masters of Deceit, 1958), Christopher’s superiors overrule his assessments, and the result is tragic for Miernik.

The novel never explicitly ratifies Christopher’s judgment. There is no smoking gun, no way to absolutely confirm what is surely true: that Miernik’s suspicious behavior would not have seemed all that problematic if the Cold War had not fomented the conditions in which the truth itself becomes a victim of the competition between superpowers.

Mystery novels in general are supposed to...

(The entire section is 1140 words.)