(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.