I wonder what the late, great spy novelist Charles McCarry would make of the COVID-19 outbreak and the Chinese connection, be it the Wuhan “wet markets” or the science labs near Wuhan.
McCarry, who died last year at the age 88, set his 2013 novel “The Shanghai Factor” in China.
“China, hidden and mysterious, has always interested me,” McCarry said in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly. “I’ve written about it in other novels before ‘The Shanghai Factor,’ and in order to save the life of my series hero, Paul Christopher, locked the poor fellow up for 10 years in a one-prisoner jail in a desert in Xianjing province.”
In “The Shanghai Factor,” the narrator, a 29-year-old American intelligence officer in China, explained how he first encountered a Chinese woman named Mei. “One day, as I pedaled along Zhonghan Road, she crashed her bicycle into mine. In those days I was new to the life as a spy, so my paranoia wasn’t yet fully developed, but I immediately suspected that this was no accident. My first thought was that Chinese counterintelligence had sniffed me out and sent this temptress to entrap me. Then I took a look at the temptress and wondered why I should mind.”
Later in the novel, McCarry writes, “I was sure from the start that she was on duty, that she reported everything, that she had bugged my room. The funny thing was, she never asked for information, never probed.”
Mei, McCarry wrote, showed no curiosity about his past history or life.
“Probably this was because she had been briefed about this matter by the folks at Guoanbu, the Chinese intelligence service (within Headquarters called “MSS,” short for Ministry of State Security) and had no reason to ask.”
I enjoyed “The Shanghai Factor,” as I have his other novels, including “The Tears of Autumn” which in my view is his finest novel. This brilliant novel covers the assassination of President Kennedy and the Vietnam War, and although I don’t subscribe to the conspiracy he portrays in the novel, I recommend highly this most interesting and insightful spy novel.
McCarry knew something about espionage, having served as a deep cover CIA officer for 10 years in the 1950s and 1960s. The New Republic called Charles McCarry “the poet laureate of the CIA.” He has also been called the American John le Carre, a spy novelist he is often compared to.
Writing in The Weekly Standard, P.J. O’Rourke noted, “unlike le Carre, McCarry knows right from wrong. His theme is never that the other side is just like our side except on the other side.”
Melanie Kirkpatrick wrote in National Review that “Charles McCarry is sometimes called a ‘conservative John le Carre’ for his highly intelligent espionage thrillers. The difference is that while le Carre presents George Smiley and his Soviet foe Karla as moral equivalents, McCarry believes in the superiority of Western ideals. His spy novels depict the unpleasant, even tragic, actions that are sometimes necessary to preserve those ideals.”
Otto Penzler, the publisher and editor of crime and spy fiction, has stated that Charles McCarry was “inarguably the greatest espionage writer that America ever produced.” He also said that McCarry was the most poetic of all American spy writers.
Mr. Penzler, whom I interviewed in a previous column, published a Charles McCarry short story for his collection of stories about espionage, “Agents of Treachery,” in 2010. I suspect McCarry will also appear in Mr. Penzler’s upcoming “Big Book of Espionage Stories.” Mr. Penzler also noted, “although there was no nicer or more brilliant man on the planet, McCarry’s gift of prophecy, or anticipating things to come, was chilling.” For example, in his 1979 novel, “The Better Angels,” McCarry anticipated suicide bombers and offered a fictional terrorist plot that predated 9/11 by 20 years.
Although he never received the popular fame that Ian Fleming or John le Carre enjoyed, by all accounts he had a full and satisfying life, personally and professionally. McCarry was born in 1930 in Massachusetts and he served in the U.S. Army as a correspondent for the Stars and Stripes newspaper. He later served as a speechwriter for President Eisenhower and then became a CIA officer. As a deep cover officer, McCarry traveled around the world, both as a spy and as a part-time journalist. He left the CIA in 1967 and wrote his first novel, “The Miernik Dossier,” in 1971.
Charles McCarry should be read by every student of espionage and by every reader that loves spy fiction.
• Paul Davis On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction, mysteries and thrillers.
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