Charles McCarry Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Charles McCarry’s novels have often been compared to the espionage thrillers of John le Carré. McCarry’s characters are also caught in the morally ambiguous Cold War world of agents and double agents. Like le Carré’s George Smiley, McCarry’s Paul Christopher carries out his duties as a government agent (in the novels the CIA is called the Outfit) while he realizes that his own side engages in dubious, unethical, and even evil actions to protect national interests.

Christopher’s personal life, like that of Smiley, suffers because of his need to be secretive and contain his emotions. A decent man who refuses to carry a gun, Christopher is often at odds with the Outfit’s programs, although he usually finds a way to operate within the system even as he risks termination.

Christopher differs from Smiley, however, in that his moral purpose is never compromised. However opposed he may be to the Outfit’s policies, his ability to gather intelligence and to determine the identities of the real enemies makes Christopher not only a survivor but also the holder of a point of view about the covert world of espionage that is quite different from that of Smiley. That Christopher has moral convictions that he never relinquishes actually makes him a better agent than anyone else in the Outfit. In other words, his morality is not a luxury but a necessity.

Whereas le Carré exposes the corruption on both sides of the Cold War, McCarry, through the indomitable Christopher, suggests a “third way,” a personal code of conduct that makes his series hero an exemplar of values that neither side can warp.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Anderson, Patrick. The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction. New York: Random House, 2007. Contains a section on McCarry that looks at his background and discusses The Tears of Autumn at length.

Callendar, Newgate. Review of The Miernik Dossier, by Charles McCarry. The New York Times Book Review, July 8, 1973, p. 26. One of the first reviewers to hail McCarry as one of the most important practitioners of the spy novel.

Fletcher, Katy. “Evolution of the Modern American Spy Novel.” Journal of Contemporary History 22, no. 2 (April, 1987): 319-331. Situates McCarry in the context of other spy novelists, including E. Howard Hunt and William F. Buckley, Jr. McCarry’s work is praised for its authenticity and compared with several nonfictional works criticizing the CIA.

Heilbrun, Jacob. “Old Fangled Espionage.” The New York Times Book Review, April 2, 2006, 11. A review of the reissued The Last Supper that also assesses McCarry’s place in the pantheon of Cold War novelists. Heilbrun ranks McCarry as the best American novelist in this genre while reserving judgment as to whether McCarry equals the best of the work of John le Carré and other British contemporaries.

Kegley, Charles W., Jr. “How Did the Cold War Die? Principles of an Autopsy.” Mershon International Studies Review 38, no. 1 (April, 1994): 11-41. McCarry’s novels can be profitably read in the light of this searching study of the Cold War. The author examines the books McCarry wrote with Alexander M. Haig, Jr.

Penzler, Otto. Armchair Detective (Summer, 1989): 272-73. Review of The Better Angels, The Bride of the Wilderness, The Last Supper, The Miernik Dossier, The Secret Lovers, and The Tears of Autumn. Penzler, one of the most important critics of mystery fiction, ranks McCarry as one of the great writers in this genre