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The Miernik Dossier Hardcover – November 3, 2005
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A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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From the Publisher
The dazzling first novel--called a "fast-moving tale of Byzantine intrigue" by The New York Times--by master Charles McCarry, author of Old Boys.
About the Author
Charles McCarry is the author, most recently, of Christopher’s Ghosts, and has written ten acclaimed novels featuring Paul Christopher and his family (all available from Overlook). During the Cold War, he was an intelligence officer operating under deep cover in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
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McCarry's world is almost entirely inhabited by professional spies, which is one obvious way it differs from an Ambler or Furst novel -- it's not about a "regular guy" who gets caught up in espionage, or even the recruitment of someone into a secret service for the first time. I found this made it somewhat more difficult to really empathize with the characters, who seem to have limited personalities, with a couple of exceptions. McCarry's female characters also struck me as a bit clichéd.
I left the book feeling that the first half promised a lot more than the second half delivered. As the story goes on, McCarry somewhat lazily relies more and more on long "diary excerpts" and "reports" to tell the story, rather than the short individual documents more common at the beginning. He also sticks a letter from Christopher's (the main CIA-agent protagonist) boss at HQ in at the very end to tidy up a bunch of details at once, which contributes to a sense that he didn't really know how to end the novel. And indeed, there is no well-defined ending; the reader is left to decide which version of events he believes. I'm sure this was supposed to be thought-provoking, but I was left with the sense that the author just didn't feel like having to nail down what had happened.
It's always a bit silly, perhaps, to point out things in spy novels that are "implausible," but I did feel like the genesis of the mission itself could have used a bit more explanation. It seemed like all the characters were suddenly in a Cadillac headed to Sudan within a couple of pages of the idea first being floated out of nowhere.
Finally, a technical note -- the 2007 paperback version is very sloppily done, with a number of obvious typos, misspellings, and printing errors. I'm not sure why Amazon is selling it for $12, given that my copy came with a bookstore remainder mark on it. Would recommend getting another version.
The story is told in a series of documents: reports, transcripts of recorded conversations, cables, diary entries, and the like. A drawback of this format is the difficulty of developing a character's personality through documents. McCarry solved that problem by having Christopher (an American agent) write very thorough, engaging reports, complete with verbatim accounts of dialog, descriptions of clothing and scenery and body odors, discussions of his observations, fears, and thought processes, and other material that helps set the scene and flesh out the characters. (Amusingly, a document prepared by one of Christopher's handlers complains that Christopher's reports lack organization and are filled with extraneous information.) Perhaps real spies don't write entertaining reports that work well as chapters in a novel, but maybe McCarry did just that when he worked for the CIA. In any event, Christopher's reports (and to a lesser extent, his British counterpart's and Miernik's diary) provide the flavor that makes the novel work as well as it does.
And it does work well. The story is filled with intrigue as the American and British agents accompany a member of the Sudanese royal family and a Polish diplomat on a road trip from Geneva to Sudan. The two spies are operating under diplomatic cover; each knows that the other is an operative but neither can admit it. They suspect that the Pole is also a spy and that he may have something to do with a Soviet-run terrorist group that has recently formed in Sudan, but they're never quite sure what role the colorful, irascible Pole is playing: is he a spy, and if so, what is his mission in Sudan? Add to the mix the Pole's sister and the British spy's girlfriend, both of whom join the trip, and the story becomes almost comical as everyone suspects everyone else of being something other than what he or she seems. Of course, when things are not as they seem, there is a potential for mistaken actions, and in this novel, that risk leads to a powerful ending. Some fast-paced action scenes in the desert add additional excitement to a story that is never in danger of becoming dull.
The Miernik Dossier teaches a lesson that applies not just to intelligence agencies but to all law enforcement agencies: once an intelligence analyst (or, for that matter, a police detective) begins to theorize that someone is a spy (or a criminal), they are likely to look for evidence to support that theory and risk losing their objectivity. For its excellent illustration of that principle as well as its riveting story and sympathetic characters, I would give The Miernik Dossier 4 1/2 stars, edging toward 5.
Charles McCarry earns a place in the pantheon of truly great spy writers with this book, The Miernik Dossier.
It is populated with clear-cut, unforgettable characters. Indeed, Miernik should go down as one of the most enigmatic characters ever to appear in a novel as well as the genre. The "hero," Paul Christopher, is no less mysterious with his low key elegance and transcendent intelligence.
The plot is wonderful. It is only "simple" when viewed from "the heights of hindsight."
But, best of all, is the writing of Charles McCarry. He pulls the reader along with an effortless grace. His writing is so good that the reader submits willingly to each and every device he decides to pull out of his bag of tricks. And he has a big bag.