THE TEARS OF AUTUMN
By Charles McCarry
Overlook. 276 pp. $24.95
I approached this handsome new edition of Charles McCarry's masterpiece, "The Tears of Autumn," with trepidation. The novel was first published in 1974, and it has been more than 20 years since I last read it. I had only a hazy memory that (1) it was beautifully written, (2) it offered a plausible theory of the Kennedy assassination and (3) it was a classic. My concern was that, given a new reading, the novel might not hold up, but my fear was groundless. "The Tears of Autumn" is beautifully written, its conspiracy theory still intrigues and it most assuredly is a classic. To reread it is to appreciate anew its excellence -- and to note one reservation that didn't bother me 20-odd years ago.
McCarry was born in 1930, and in the '50s and '60s he spent 10 years as a CIA operative in Europe, Africa and Asia. His first novel, "The Miernik Dossier," published in 1973, introduced his spy-hero Paul Christopher. At that point, McCarry proposed to his publisher a book of nonfiction outlining his theory of who ordered the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The publisher rejected the idea as journalism -- but urged McCarry to write it as fiction. McCarry produced "The Tears of Autumn" in two months.
I won't detail McCarry's assassination scenario. Suffice it to say that Kennedy is shot in Dallas early in the novel, and Paul Christopher soon deduces who was behind the killing. When he realizes that the White House -- including both the Kennedy holdovers and the incoming Johnson people -- will not accept his theory, because if true it would cause them too many problems, he quits the CIA and sets out to gather the evidence that will prove he is right. His quest takes him all around the world and exposes him to great danger, but in time he has the evidence.
McCarry's years as an undercover operative served him well. Some of the novel's best moments show Christopher meeting with a variety of revolutionaries, rogues and killers who can advance his quest. In one droll scene, he recruits an ex-Nazi dwarf whose specialty is squeezing down chimneys. In Rome, he fences with a Russian spy who wants to defect. ("It's comic how I fit the defector's pattern. I tell you how I love Russia, and offer you her secrets in exchange for safety.") In one of the novel's most memorable scenes, Christopher meets with a Congolese revolutionary and the Cuban military officer who is "advising" him. What the Cuban doesn't understand, but Christopher does, is that the Congolese is planning to kill the Cuban. The novel paints a state-of-the-art picture of a CIA spy in the early years of the Cold War.
"The Tears of Autumn" would be intriguing even if told in pedestrian prose, but the grace of its writing gives it a special dimension. McCarry is a classicist whose style often echoes that of Ernest Hemingway. Thus: "Finally they went to Siena. Christopher wanted to be in a quiet place. For a week he thought of nothing but Molly. They walked through the old town with its thin campanile and its buildings that were the color of dry earth. The afternoons turned cold and they lay in bed, reading a novel aloud to one another. They drank hot chocolate with sweet Italian brandy in it. They woke each other often in the night. Afterward, Molly pushed her heavy hair away from her face and looked down, smiling, into Christopher's face."
My only reservation about the novel has to do with McCarry's idealized portrait of Paul Christopher as patriot and superhero. Christopher is blessed not only with uncommon intelligence, physical beauty and personal charm but also with such courage that he will gladly give his life for his country or simply for love of the truth. We see him contrasted first with an arrogant Kennedy White House aide who is willing to have Christopher killed to keep him quiet, and then with an incoming Johnson aide (the nicely named J.D. Trumbull), a jovial Texan who is all guile and duplicity. Christopher has only scorn for such men.
Christopher published a volume of poetry in his youth. Many people believe he can read minds. He is fearless and charismatic; other men defer to him, and women adore him. He is an idealist who rarely carries a weapon, won't betray an agent and will not tolerate torture. When the arrogant Kennedy aide questions Christopher's value, his CIA superior replies: "Three things: first, he's intelligent and entirely unsentimental. Second, he will go to any lengths to get the truth, he never gives up. Third, he is not subject to fear." Has this paragon no weaknesses? Just one that I noticed: As a young man, he was a lousy judge of women. He married Cathy -- a lovely girl, but with certain failings. "She had superstitions, but no ideas. . . . She was beautiful and wanted to be nothing else." Although Christopher "bought her jewels and clothes and read to her," she bitterly resented his travels and secrecy: "She punished him with lovers and went back to America."
Late in the novel, Christopher shares a train compartment with three nuns: "One of the nuns peeled an orange and handed it to him, with the skin arranged around the fruit like the pointed leaves of a lily. She was young, with a sensual face from which prayer had scrubbed all traces of desire. However, the pretty orange, handed across the compartment as if she were feeding a horse and was wary of its teeth, was as much a gift of flirtation as of charity." The nun and her orange have nothing to do with the story. This glimpse of her is simply a lovely moment, lovingly described. And yet there is this subtext: Christopher is so pure, so dazzling, that even nuns flirt with him.
The idealization of the hero is a convention in most series -- why keep writing about someone if he's not special? -- but some writers temper it by adding imperfections to the mix. Compare the dashing Christopher with John le Carre's George Smiley, with his toad's face, rotund body and ill-fitting suits. We learn in a later volume that Christopher pays a terrible price for learning the truth about Kennedy's death, but he bears his punishment stoically, for that is the code he lives by. Paul Christopher is conceived as a mythic figure, the finest flower of Western civilization in the mid-20th century; even his name is saintly. The Christopher novels are brilliant, but their flaw is that their hero has no flaw -- he is too good to be true. McCarry's idealization of Christopher is the price we pay for his silken prose and his insights into the world of spies and assassinations. "The Tears of Autumn" remains one of the great spy novels, and we must be grateful to the publisher for making its pleasures available to a new generation.