On his experience being a deep-cover agent for the CIA: "It's one of the most boring occupations in the world, punctuated by moments of ecstasy. You sit around for days, sometimes for weeks, waiting for something you think you have made happen, to happen. And sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. Or waiting for an agent to show up. They're famous for not doing that, or showing up in the wrong place or on the wrong day, wrong hour." Charles McCarry
In the 1980s I read just about every espionage book I could get my hands on. I read Deighton, Ludlum, Fleming, Ambler, Forsyth, Greene, and of course the grand master LeCarre. Later I read Alan Furst who at his best reminds me of Graham Greene. Somehow in all this I lost track of Charles McCarry. I knew about him. I had thought many times I should read him, but there was always another book more pressing.Charles McCarry
I was trading some John Dickson Carr books to The Mysterious Bookshop in New York and was pleasantly surprised when the legendary Otto Penzler called me back to discuss the books. I had a moment of star struck, numb tongued, stupidity until his affability made it impossible for me not to respond to his bantering talk about books. In the course of our discussion about books he brought up Charles McCarry as one of those lost treasures. I had that OH CRAP realization that I had not only forgotten McCarry, but had put him on a back burner for a couple of decades. So thanks to Mr. Penzler I brought McCarry to the front burner and had the pleasure this week of reading his first book THE MIERNIK DOSSIER.
The book is a compilation of interviews, intercepted radio transmitions, diary entries, field reports, surveillance, debriefings, and dispatches from or about a group of friends in Geneva who happen to all be spies of one sort or another. I was worried about the format, but McCarry seamlessly weaves the narrative together, and soon I found myself flipping pages as fast as I could, trying to inhale as quickly as possible all that the dossier has to reveal. The Miernik Dossier First Edition
Tadeusz Miernik, is a Polish national worried about the expiration of his contract and visa. He is petitioning his circle of friends to help him, through their governments, to find a way for him to stay in Geneva. He is a clumsy, oafish, ugly man difficult to understand, an enigma and a source for endless speculation among his friends as to who exactly he is working for.
Paul Christopher is an American agent in deep cover with a mandate to keep an eye on everyone and everything. People like to talk to him and this becomes more and more an asset as the plot unfolds and he attempts to understand what exactly is going on. McCarry uses him as his main character in many future novels. Paul describes how he sees his job. "There is an artistry to what we are doing: spies are like novelists--except that spies use living people and real places to make their works of art. More and more I want to see what I can do with characters I've been given."
Nigel Collins is a British agent involved with the beautiful Ilona Bentley. He and Tadeusz Miernik butt heads frequently somewhat to do with jealousy over Ilona, but also because they are suspicious of each others true intentions.
Kalesh el Khatar, a Sudanese prince and later in the novel a recruit by various organizations. He is of memorable, dramatic personage. Standing 6'8", black as oil, charming, and sophisticated Kalesh is a confident, aloof personality who tries to stay above all the intrigue, but eventually is forced into the game by necessity. Zophia speaks of his character. "Once in a while I see Kalash, always with a different little female. He wears these girls like scarves--they flutter around his neck till his mood changes, and then he puts on another." Ahh yes he was also a bit of a womanizer.
Ilona Bentley, a Hungarian concentration camp survivor is as alluded to earlier a beautiful, vivacious, young lady intent on seducing all the men in the group. She has suspected Russian ties and her beautiful facade hides many soul torn scars that make it easy to see why she has a "live for the moment" philosophy of life.
Zofia Miernik, supposed sister of Tadeusz. Despite the best efforts of the group, through the archives of their various organizations, no one can confirm for sure that she has any relationship to Tadeusz. Paul Christopher is enlisted by Tadeusz to be smuggled into Czechoslovakia, behind the iron curtain, to bring out Zofia. Tadeusz has fears that his government will put pressure on him to return through their ability to hurt his sister. Zofia is beautiful, in other words does not look anything like her brother, adding to the speculation that she is not really his sister. Paul goes along with the scheme with the hope that he can learn more about Miernik in the process.
Kalesh is asked by his father to drive a Cadillac, a gift from a business associate, to him in Sudan. Kalesh asked Nigel and Paul to go along and soon everyone decides to go on this insane road trip through the desert. Everyone is going for similar reasons, mainly to keep an eye on the others and learn as much as they can about their fellow travelers. The intrigue, the bits and pieces of collected data, the distrust, the uncertain alliances keep everyone guessing and even I, the reader, learn only enough to keep my own brain grasping for answers. We wouldn't have had a cold war if we'd just heating things up a bit at Yalta.
There was a bit of nostalgia for me reading this book. I couldn't wait for the cold war to end when I was living in the middle of it. Like most other people I knew, I thought the arsenal build up by both the Soviets and the US a tragic waste of resources, but in the course of all this gamesmanship a fascinating genre of literature was born. Spies put there lives on the line, lived each day with bated breath trying to keep their prospective countries safe from a nebulous threat. The format of this book is unusual and yet handled so deftly you will find yourself applauding the sure hand of McCarry to guide you to a tragic and yet satisfying ending.