Charles McCarry spent almost 10 years in the CIA as an undercover officer, operating alone as he roamed throughout Africa, Europe and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. He never carried a gun. He didn’t kill anyone.
He was in the agency when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. He was in and out of Vietnam. He was at an airport in Congo in 1963, when a Belgian priest told him about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He always went by an assumed name and never lived in the same countries in which he worked.
After he resigned from the CIA to become a writer, Mr. McCarry used many of those elements in the novel that many consider his masterpiece, “The Tears of Autumn.” But when he turned in his manuscript, it was initially rejected by his publisher.
“Where’s the car chase? Where’s the torture scene? Where’s the sex? Where’s the good Russian?” the publisher demanded, as Mr. McCarry recalled in a 1988 essay for The Washington Post. “Do you call this a thriller?”
The publisher gave Mr. McCarry a best-selling novel to study. A month later, Mr. McCarry submitted his manuscript again — without so much as changing a comma. This time, it was accepted.
“I can only write what I know,” he noted.
Since it came out in 1974, “The Tears of Autumn” has sold millions of copies and has been hailed as a classic of espionage fiction. In his 13 novels, Mr. McCarry created dense, fast-moving plots of international intrigue populated by complex, troubled characters — male and female — seeking to find order and purpose in their lives.
“There is simply no other way to say it,” Otto Penzler, a leading expert on crime and espionage fiction, wrote in the New York Sun in 2004. “Just the straightforward, inarguable truth: Charles McCarry is the greatest espionage writer that America has ever produced.”
Mr. McCarry, whose novels about spycraft and politics were deeply admired if not always well known, died Feb. 26 at a hospital in Fairfax County, Va. He was 88.
He had complications from a cerebral hemorrhage sustained in a fall, said a son, Caleb McCarry.
No blockbuster movies have been based on Mr. McCarry’s books, his photograph seldom appeared on his dust jackets, and he didn’t go on book tours or appear on television. “They only want to ask me about my life in the CIA,” he told The Post in 1988, “and I can’t talk about that.”
Yet his novels were written with such a deft, knowing touch that he often invited favorable comparisons to another spy-turned-author. “Mr. McCarry is the American le Carré,” Penzler wrote, “equaling him stylistically but surpassing his English counterpart in terms of intellectual depth and moral clarity.”
In book after book, Mr. McCarry pulled away the curtain to capture the workaday worlds of espionage and high-stakes politics with an uncanny prescience and clear-eyed realism.
In his 1979 novel “The Better Angels,” he wrote of a network of “computers talking to one another,” and described suicide bombers and hijacked airliners used as weapons, years before those practices were adopted by terrorists.
In 1998’s “Lucky Bastard,” he portrayed a president — who believes himself to be an illegitimate son of JFK — who wins office with the help of Russian money and intelligence officials.
“The American people in their mystical wisdom,” Mr. McCarry wrote, “had lifted up this sociopath, this liar, this rapist, this hollow man beloved by lunatics and traitors, and made him the most powerful human being in the world.”
Mr. McCarry’s 1995 political thriller “Shelley’s Heart” featured a disputed Senate confirmation, a presidential election manipulated by electronic fraud and an impeachment battle. In his review, Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley wondered if it might be the best novel ever written about official Washington.
“I’ve read all the other contenders,” Yardley wrote, “and nothing comes close to ‘Shelley’s Heart,’ which in every important respect simply rolls the competition into the ground.”
Mr. McCarry’s best-known character was an old-school spy with a poetic heart named Paul Christopher, who appeared in no fewer than eight novels. In many ways, he was Mr. McCarry’s alter ego — a “singleton” spy who traveled on his own, seeking to advance U.S. influence.
“Evil was permanent and it was everywhere,” Mr. McCarry wrote in “The Better Angels,” describing the milieu that he and Christopher occupied. “What mattered was that it should be channeled, tricked into working for your own side. That was what an intelligence service was for.”
Albert Charles McCarry Jr. was born June 14, 1930, in Pittsfield, Mass. He grew up on his family’s farm in nearby Plainfield, milking cows and attending a two-room schoolhouse. By 14, he determined he wanted to be a writer, but lacking money for college, he entered the Army after finishing high school.
He wrote and produced a base newspaper in Germany. Later, an Army friend recommended him for a job as a speechwriter for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s labor secretary, James P. Mitchell. In 1958, Mr. McCarry joined the CIA after Mitchell suggested him to CIA director Allen Dulles.
At 5-foot-10 and wearing heavy-framed glasses, the unarmed Mr. McCarry didn’t match the James Bond image of a spy, but he was in clandestine service overseas for nine years.
“I traveled a lot, in and out of countries, in and out of identities,” he told the Boston Globe in 1995. “The telephone would ring at midnight, and then I would fly out to the Congo.”
His work involved “covert political action” — and a lot of sitting around in hotel lobbies.
“People are dying to tell you their secrets,” he said to the Los Angeles Times in 2008. “If you just let people fill the silence they will tell you the most extraordinary things.”
One of the agents he recruited in Africa disappeared, and Mr. McCarry feared he had been killed. Years later, on a bus in London, Mr. McCarry recognized a tall man in a business suit and, using his code name from Africa, said, “Peter?” They embraced and began to sob, each knowing the other had survived their shared battle.
“Their friendships were deeper than marriage,” Mr. McCarry wrote in “The Tears of Autumn” of the bond among spies. “They needed each other’s trust as other men need love.”
In 1960, Mr. McCarry took a leave of absence to write speeches on the campaign trail for Republican vice presidential candidate Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. During down times when he wasn’t needed by the CIA, Mr. McCarry contributed celebrity profiles and travel articles to magazines. He left the CIA in 1967 to concentrate on writing.
“McCarry was under such deep cover,” former CIA director Richard Helms told The Post in 1977, “I’d never even met him until years after he’d resigned from the agency.”
Mr. McCarry then worked on contract for the Saturday Evening Post and wrote for other magazines. His first book, “Citizen Nader,” a somewhat skeptical biography of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, appeared in 1972.
He published his debut novel, “The Miernik Dossier,” in 1973, followed a year later by “The Tears of Autumn,” in which the plot turned on the notion that Kennedy’s assassination was in retaliation for U.S.-sanctioned killings of South Vietnamese leaders.
In addition to his novels, Mr. McCarry published several nonfiction books on travel and one of the first transatlantic balloon flights. He also helped Alexander M. Haig Jr., a onetime White House chief of staff and secretary of state, write two autobiographical volumes. When Donald T. Regan, chief of staff and treasury secretary under President Ronald Reagan, received a $1 million advance for his memoir in 1988, it was reportedly because he had Mr. McCarry as a ghost writer.
Mr. McCarry settled in Washington in the 1980s and, for several years, was an editor-at-large for National Geographic, working with the magazine’s most high-profile writers. He maintained homes for many years in Massachusetts and Florida.
Survivors include his wife of 65 years, the former Nancy Neill of Arlington, Va.; four sons, William McCarry of Longmeadow, Mass., Nathan McCarry of Amissville, Va., Caleb McCarry of Leesburg, Va., and John McCarry of Karachi, Pakistan; five grandchildren; and three great-grandsons.
In 2004, Mr. McCarry brought Christopher, his best-known character, out of retirement in “Old Boys,” which critics praised as a triumphant return to form. His earlier books were returned to print, and he continued to bring out new novels as recently as 2015, with “The Mulberry Bush.”
The world, in all its disorder, provided no end of subject matter for Mr. McCarry, who was at work on a new book at the time of his death. “Spies are everywhere among us and always have been,” he said. “It is a very old, old profession.”