Elegance vs. Evil
Monday, May 21, 2007
By Charles McCarry
Overlook. 304 pp. $25
Charles McCarry's new Paul Christopher novel is divided into two parts. The first section is set in 1939, when Christopher is 16 and living in Hitler's Berlin with his father, the American writer Hubbard Christopher, and mother Lori, a baroness from an ancient Prussian family.
The elder Christophers have outraged the Nazi regime by helping smuggle Jews out of the country. The Christophers know that it is almost impossible for them to escape Germany and that the Gestapo, at any moment, might imprison, torture or kill them. The only reason they remain free is that Reinhard Heydrich, the all-powerful head of the secret police, is obsessed with Lori and is using the fate of her husband and son to pressure her into an affair.
Paul, meanwhile, is trying to live a normal life -- and then he goes and falls in love. She is also 16, dark-haired, beautiful and mature beyond her years. He calls her Rima, after a character in his favorite novel, W. H. Hudson's "Green Mansions." Rima is officially Jewish because one of her grandparents was Jewish, and her father, a noted surgeon, has been forbidden to practice medicine except on Jews. First love is often painful, in literature and life, but rarely more than here, when the lovers, as well as their parents, fear the Nazis' sudden wrath.
The evil of Nazism is embodied by a psychopathic SS officer, Franz Strutzer, who harasses Paul and, when Rima is taken into custody, humiliates her and threatens to have her father sent to Dachau. Many scenes in which the Nazis torment these decent people are exceedingly painful to read, and we suspect that things will not end well. We know that Paul survives (having read previous novels about his career in the CIA), but we agonize until the final scene about the fate of his parents and his lover.
The novel's second section moves ahead to 1959, when Christopher, by then a legendary agent, locates Strutzer and sets out to have his revenge on the Nazi, now reborn as a spymaster for the communist regime in East Germany. Here, too, McCarry creates maximum suspense -- not only as to whether Christopher, working with Israeli Nazi-hunters, can capture the resourceful Strutzer, but also as to what punishment he will inflict on this monster who tormented him and those he loved.
"Christopher's Ghosts," although not the equal of "The Tears of Autumn," is certainly one of the better Christopher novels. Three years ago, "Old Boys" was a mostly lighthearted romp in which some retired CIA agents banded together to free the aging Christopher from a distant prison. McCarry is back in form here, and by pitting the Christopher family against the Nazis, he is deadly serious. The story is rich in suspense, colorful characters, sudden surprises and detail. His prose, as always, is elegance itself.
Still, a nagging concern must be noted. Someone said that J.D. Salinger loved his fictional Glass family more than God loved them. The same can be said about McCarry and his idealized Christopher clan. Lori "descended from ancestors who had fought and dined with Charlemagne during the First Reich." Her Nazi admirer calls her "the most perfect Aryan female he had ever seen." Teenaged Paul, with his "dark blond hair," is himself "the picture of young Aryan manhood, as imagined by the [Nazi] party's poster artists." Paul's father is a WASP prince, scion of the Hubbard and Christopher families, whose men have fought for America in five wars; he is a scholar, an idealist and in time a hero. We are told of Paul: "Even as an infant he had been well mannered."
When Paul was 12, his great-uncle Paulus, a celebrated Prussian warrior, took the boy on his first boar hunt and afterward, "smeared Paul's cheek with the blood of his first kill." In this book, at 16, the boy risks death at the hands of the Nazis because honor requires it.
In one scene, Paul and his parents and their friend O.G., an American diplomat, dine at one of Berlin's finest restaurants. The diplomat orders two bottles of wine and insists that the boy -- who, as far as we know, doesn't drink -- taste them:
" 'What's the verdict?' O.G. asked.
" 'I don't like Gewürtztraminer,' Paul said.
" 'Why ever not?"
" 'It tastes the way dried rose petals smell. But the red wine is delicious.'
" 'Good palate,' O.G. said. 'Nuits Saint-Georges 1929.' "
Perhaps it's my surly populism emerging once again, but all this we-happy-few preening becomes tiresome. And yet it's basic to McCarry's concept. Recent fiction has elevated the antihero, grubby fellows such as John le Carré's George Smiley and Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch. Christopher is a throwback, a hero out of Arthurian legend, handsome, brave and incorruptible, the finest flower of Western civilization in the mid-20th century.
McCarry's idealization of Christopher can be annoying, but it's the price we pay for the writer's silken prose and his insights into the world of espionage. If you enjoy spy fiction, or simply fine writing, try "Christopher's Ghosts." Elitism aside, it's an impressive performance by a novelist nearing 77.