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Finding himself back in print

Times Staff Writer

“There is no better spy novelist,” Lev Grossman wrote recently in Time magazine of Charles McCarry, whose biggest hit, the JFK-assassination-themed “Tears of Autumn,” was published in 1975. “It’s like the best parts of 10 John LeCarre novels all put together.” McCarry’s early fans included Eric Ambler, the British spy-fiction pioneer.

Yet McCarry, who matches the philosophical searching and fully drawn characters of LeCarre as well as the Old World romanticism of Alan Furst, is today criminally unknown -- perhaps an appropriate position for a man who worked for the CIA under deep cover in Europe, Asia and Africa from 1957 to ’67.

Despite unceasing critical support and strong sales in the 1970s, McCarry’s novels were available in later decades only in used bookstores. But since 2005, the Overlook Press has been gradually reissuing all his work, and this month they’re publishing “The Better Angels.”

The novel, originally published in 1979 and set in the ‘90s, reads like a prehistory of the Sept. 11 attacks: While most of it takes place in Washington, D.C., the book’s plot is set in motion by a rabble-rousing Arab Muslim leader and a Middle Eastern terrorist who once exploded planes over Israel.

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“The debris, fragments of the machine and parts of human bodies, had fallen into the city streets and onto rooftops. . . . All this happened at a time when security measures were so strict that authorities believed it had finally become impossible for a terrorist to smuggle any sort of bomb or weapon aboard a passenger flight.”

McCarry, 77, who lives in the Berkshires and on the Florida coast, spoke recently about espionage, Maugham, “The Better Angels,” and a career both celebrated and neglected.

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I think you’ve said that your time in the CIA was not glamorous or exciting.

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That’s correct. It was tedious and boring. It’s like being in love: long periods of deprivation and loneliness and suspicion and anxiety, punctuated by moments of intense gratification. And then the cycle begins over again.

It consists largely of waiting, in fact, I’ve sat around in hotel rooms waiting for agents to turn up for weeks at a time. And finally they do -- you’re supposed to meet them on the Champs Elysees at 11 o’clock on Tuesday and they think they’re supposed to be in Copenhagen on that day. Because there’s so much of the charade involved in tradecraft, there’s continual misunderstanding.

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I want to read a few lines from “The Better Angels” and ask you to describe their meaning:

“Horace . . . perceived that nothing ran unmixed in men or causes or nations. Evil was permanent and it was everywhere. What mattered was that it should be channeled, tricked into working for your own side. That was what an intelligence service was for.”

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I certainly believe that. I’ve always been baffled by critics of the CIA, who are horrified that it does illegal things. That is the purpose of an intelligence service: to perform illegal acts. I think one of the first things that was said to me, when I presented myself for training and briefing, was that, “You must understand that espionage is a criminal activity in any country except your own. Whenever you recruit an agent you suborn him to treason, a capital crime in every country in the world.”

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And I suppose when I was writing that I was presenting Horace as a supreme realist.

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I wonder, if intelligence is about performing illegal acts, what this says about the issue of torture.

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Well, I never met a torturer in the CIA or anyone who believed in it, and I certainly do not. And one of the reasons is that, like Horace, I think it’s counterproductive. People are dying to tell you their secrets; it’s just a matter of getting the conversation going in the right direction. If you just let people fill the silence they will let you the most extraordinary things. I sometimes wonder if afterward they remember what they’ve said.

It’s a very complicated question. I don’t think it’s something that Americans ought to do, or anybody else as far as that goes. But I’ve been on this planet for more than three quarters of a century, and all my life I’ve associated decency with my country.

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Your style is hard to describe. Maybe it’s a combination of elegance and a hardness . . . How do you achieve that, and which other writers do you feel you’re drawing from?

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I don’t feel when I’m writing that I’m drawing from any other writer, but of course I must be. The writers I’ve admired have been not so very different from myself: Evelyn Waugh, for example, that kind of crystalline prose. And I’ve always admired W. Somerset Maugham more than any other writer. He also writes in an absolutely clear and conversational style. Where I was really swept away by him was “Of Human Bondage.” He said his idea in writing the book was to write a long telegram to the reader, and that was a complete change in style for him. He’d had a late-Edwardian style and he suddenly wrote that book in 1915, and it became a profound influence on other writers and certainly on me.

But I have to tell you, I write in a very peculiar way. I think about a book for 25 or 30 years in a kind of inchoate way, and at one point or another I realize the book is ready to be written. I usually have a character, a first line and general idea of what the book is going to be about. And I sit down and start writing, 1,000 words a day; it used be 1,500 when I was younger. And it just happens.

I hardly ever read a thriller. I was very fond of Eric Ambler -- another one of my masters. I think he must be a strong subconscious influence.

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It’s amazing that “The Better Angels,” along with “Tears of Autumn” and your other novels, spent several decades out of print. Do you have a theory about why, despite your reputation among people who’ve read you, you’re so far from being a household name?

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No -- frankly it’s a mystery to me. I know that people who like my books pass them from hand to hand: They had almost a samizdat existence for 20 or 25 years until [Overlook Press publisher] Peter Mayer came along and said he wanted to republish them all -- the ultimate offer you can’t refuse.

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But no, I have no idea why that happened. I think it’s maybe because I’ve always written against fashion. Also, from the beginnings the books were marketed as thrillers and they aren’t really. I don’t think Random House would have had the success with Cormac McCarthy that they’ve had if they marketed his books as westerns. But that’s what happened early on. I think the human race has an instinct to categorize, and certainly the publishing industry does and certainly booksellers do.

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What kind of vibrations were you picking up in the ‘70s that led you to this book with its charismatic Arab leader, its suicide bombings, its airplane bombs . . . ?

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The ‘70s was a period of considerable terrorism, in Europe with middle class kids and in the Middle East with the Palestinians. It’s when the Palestinian terror organization really emerged. It seemed possible to me, at least in a novelist sense, that that wasn’t going to go away. As it turned out, it hasn’t. It subsided for a while, but it came back.

It wasn’t going to go away for all the reasons all of us bleeding hearts always cite: The conditions that produced it were not going to go away. It never died out completely. But it wasn’t the way it is now. These Islam-wide movements, where terrorist cells seem to spring up on their own, find their own support. To train off the Internet -- that’s one thing that I didn’t imagine.

It’s very, very difficult, as we know, to deal with terrorists. The entire federal government was turned on its head by John Brown. And my Arab terrorist is not so very different from John Brown.

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scott.timberg@latimes.com


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