Charles McCarry spent 10 years working as an undercover CIA operative in Europe, Africa and Asia and then in his 40s turned to writing fiction. His second novel, “The Tears of Autumn,” published in 1974, remains one of the greatest American spy novels. Why? Because McCarry wove together his gorgeous prose and firsthand knowledge of tradecraft with an urgent and brilliant plot: Just after the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy, McCarry’s hero, the aristocratic spy Paul Christophersets out to prove who was behind the tragedy in Dallas. Christopher finds the truth, but his government doesn’t want it revealed, and he pays a high price for his honesty.
McCarry’s new novel, “The Shanghai Factor,” written in his early 80s, does not rise to the level of “The Tears of Autumn” — few novels do — but it’s a highly entertaining tale in which he looks back with amusement and a certain nostalgia on his years as a young spy. It was a time when, at least for his fictional creation, facing danger was repaid by an exceptionally enjoyable sex life. Here are the novel’s opening lines:
“Those who keep an eye on me think I have a weakness for Chinese women. This is true as far as it goes, but it goes both ways. I am a hairy man, and certain East Asia women like that. My first Chinese girl called sex with me ‘sleeping with the chimpanzee.’ Her name was Mei, easy for a chimp to pronounce and remember.”
After being wounded in Afghanistan, our nameless, Ivy-educated hero joins the CIA and is sent to Shanghai to learn Mandarin and meet influential Chinese who might be recruited to the U.S. cause. The lovely Mei crashes her bike into his and soon goes home with him. He assumes she works for Chinese intelligence but doesn’t care. She teaches him Mandarin and more. “I was twenty-nine. She was five or six years younger, so we were both indefatigable,” he confides. “I had never before lived in the total absence of emotional clutter, let alone complete sexual gratification.”
Soon our contented spy is recruited to work as an aide to a powerful Chinese CEO, whom he suspects is linked to the Chinese intelligence agency. He hurries back to Washington and confers with the CIA’s counterintelligence chief, the eccentric Luther Burbank, who tells him to play along. As the story progresses, the Chinese try to recruit our hero even as tries to recruit some of them. Eventually, he finds he’s been a pawn in a larger game and faces the possibility of life in prison on trumped-up charges of treason.
As this summary may suggest, there’s a large element of fantasy and fun, along with tradecraft and skulduggery, in this sophisticated romp. Our hero continues his run of luck with the ladies. In addition to Mei, whose secrets we eventually learn, he acquires three other lovers, two of whom are delightful and one of whom proves to possess the post-coital instincts of a black widow spider.
McCarry’s plot moves along nicely, but the novel’s real pleasure comes in his asides on human nature and the spy game. For example:
Of his wealthy, twice-widowed mother: “It had taken her about three days after the funerals to forget her late husbands — probably even less in my father’s case. Men died and ceased to be useful, women lived on.”
On the absurdities of spying: “The amount of time wasted every day by spies of all nations on comedies of error . . . would provide hours enough for a terrorist cell composed of two illiterate brothers and a cousin living in a cave to build a nuclear device.”
A spy’s mission in a nutshell: “Befriend, befuddle, betray.”
If all this sounds amusing to you, you’ll probably enjoy “The Shanghai Factor.” It’s the autumnal work of a master, looking back with no regrets.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
THE SHANGHAI FACTOR
By Charles McCarry
Mysterious. 291 pp. $26