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Old Boys Paperback – April 26, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
McCarry is another ace spy novelist from the past to whom Overlook's Peter Mayer is giving a new lease on life (as with Robert Littell's The Company two years ago). Both of them are real pros, with McCarry having a more lapidary style and a rather more aristocratic turn of mind. His "old boys," former CIA men who come out of retirement to help one of their former colleagues, Horace Hubbard, find his lost cousin, Paul Christopher, are a classy group, each with a well-defined area of expertise. Christopher, an elderly agent himself (he starred in some of McCarry's earlier books, most notably in The Tears of Autumn), has disappeared, and apparently died, in a remote area of China. His ashes are sent back to the U.S. by the Chinese, and a memorial service is held. But Horace cannot believe he is dead, and nor can Paul's daughter, Zarah. As they set out on Christopher's trail, they find it leads to his remarkable mother, Lori, who was probably involved in the assassination of Nazi kingpin Heydrich in WWII and kept as a legacy of that monster a priceless scroll in his possession depicting the death of Christ from a Roman agent's viewpoint. The plot is almost indescribable, involving a Muslim terrorist who wants the scroll and who plans to blow up much of the West with a cache of miniature Soviet nuclear bombs; a Chinese forced-labor camp; and sundry ex-Nazis, ex-KGB men and double-crossers galore. It's a great tribute to McCarry's skill that he manages to keep all his colored balls in the air and carry the reader willingly with him. But the kitchen-sink approach to the plot increasingly strains credibility as the story zips along, and the tension between his all-too-believable "old boys" and the comic-book action is never satisfactorily resolved.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
McCarry's latest is an old-fashioned, rollicking adventure that beats Ludlum and Cussler at their own game. When Paul Christopher, the enigmatic hero of several earlier McCarry novels, disappears while on a quest for his nonagenarian mother, Lori, his black-sheep cousin, Horace Hubbard, convenes a discreet cadre of over-the-hill spies to find their confrere--and to save the world from Ib'n Awad, an aging Islamic terrorist in possession of 12 nuclear suitcase bombs. In a beguiling twist sure to appeal to fans of The Da Vinci Code, all parties also seek a fabled ancient scroll that unmasks Jesus as an agent provocateur, handled by Judas for Roman spymaster Paul. The nonstop peregrinations of this league of extraordinary spooks take them to a score of exotic locales, pitting them against Chechen thugs, Chinese secret police, Nazi doctors, and a case of acute myocardial fibrillation. McCarry's commitment to this fanciful premise is absolute, and the resulting yarn combines the intrepid exploits of John Buchan, the cagey intrigue of Eric Ambler, and the clipped cadences of Dashiell Hammett. Tremendous fun. David Wright
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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But, McCarry wasn't quite finished yet. "Old Boys", set after Christopher's divorce from his second wife a decade or so later, begins in its prologue with Christopher arranging his own disappearance on a journey he hopes will find his long-lost mother, kidnapped by Nazi monster Reinhardt Heydrich in 1940. No one but Christopher believes Lori Christopher, who would be in her 90s, is still alive, but no one can stop him, least of all his cousin. In Chapter 1, the same cousin, a few months later, has received Paul Christopher's ashes from the Chinese government. He doesn't believe they're real. Thus starts a reunion of a crowd of old boys from the mid-Cold War days at CIA, set into motion by the missing Christopher in part, but more by the surprise discovery that a mad Arab they thought dead has resurfaced, this time armed with Soviet-era suitcase nukes which the terrorist plans to use on the United States.
It sounds a bit like an airport book, and in some ways it is. The style is sometimes a bit hackneyed. But, in most other aspects, the depth of characterization, the examination of motive and act, the illumination of setting, and the observation of the various rituals of eating, drinking and conversation that spies encounter in their travels is pure McCarry, which is to say as good or better than anyone else has ever been in depicting the secret life. Word has been for many years that the one book you're likely to see a real spy reading was written by Charles McCarry. Evidently, he remembered a lot from his many years working for the agency, not as a house bureaucrat, but as an active agent.
The book is much more fun than serious, though it has serious resonance with the ongoing struggle with terrorists from the Middle East and elsewhere. It ends happily, as you would expect in a 'hale and farewell' story. We know we will never see Christopher again, at least in a contemporary story. We know he's happy, as is his daughter. We know a lot of happy things, including the dispensation of the terrorist and his bombs. That's okay. The road there is filled with more serious stuff. Enjoy. If you wanted to meet Paul Christopher and company one more time, buy "Old Boys" by Charles McCarry.
But, if you must have the really serious stuff, go back to the beginning of the series. All of those books are being reissued, including "The Miernik Dossier," the first Christopher book, and a literary tour-de-force, "The Tears of Autumn," a most unusual view of the assassination of a President, "The Secret Lovers," probably one of the best five or six spy novels ever written, "The Last Supper," also one of the very best, and "Second Sight," under-appreciated by most critics but a rather stunning fiction.
There has been a subsequent addition to the Christopher series, but it's set while he's still an active agent, the very fine "Christopher's Ghosts."
Legendary agent Paul Christopher has disappeared. His ashes may be in the burial urn which was so graciously delivered by the Chinese government to the Americans, or he may once again be a prisoner in China, or he may be carrying out a search for his mother. Christopher's mother may have been killed by the Nazis during World War II, or she may be living as a peasant woman in rural Kyrgyzstan. If she is still alive, she may or may not have the Amphora Scroll, which may or may not exist. If the scroll exists, it contents may prove Jesus Christ to be a mere dupe of Roman intelligence operatives, or it may prove that He was genuinely the Messiah. The reported contents of the Amphora Scroll have attracted the unwanted attentions of Islamic terrorist Ibn Awad, whom the book's narrator supposedly killed years before. But despite Ibn Awad's assassination, he may still be alive. If he is alive, he may possess 12 suitcase-sized nukes, which may or may not exist. The facts uncovered by narrator Horace Hubbard, by half-Chinese-half-Ashkenazi David Wong and by the rest of the Old Boys are kaleidoscopic in nature--if you don't like them, wait five minutes and reality will morph into something else.
OLD BOYS is a wonderful tale.
However, it loses its fifth star because of the combined effect of four flaws. Reviewer Brenda Gardner justifiably criticizes the dowsing scene. This scene is unnecessary, unbelievable, amateurish, but thankfully brief. Second, I have a sneaking hunch that McCarry had a side bet going that he could put more locales into this novel than in any other novel in history. This gives OLD BOYS an if-it's-Tuesday-this-must-be-Belgium ambiance. On the other hand, McCurry's descriptions of these many locations are vivid, observant, and detailed. I can't help wonder if he's actually visited all of them (and, if so, how has he avoided bankruptcy?) Third, although McCarry demonstrates a mastery at populating OLD BOYS with distinct, lifelike characters, he inexplicably fails to do so with the Old Boys themselves. Reviewer J. Stanley complains that Horace's helpers are always "white, Midwestern farm boys." But historically, the Old Boys come from a time when the CIA was essentially a Whites-Only organization. Nevertheless, this doesn't excuse the Old Boys from being a homologous entity. None of them have outlooks or reactions which differ from the others. None of them apparently have any children to frantically call them up wondering why grandpa is in Istanbul, or Ireland, or Chad or the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The Old Boys essentially are one, not-very-interesting character who's been photocopied. Fourth, what is the ultimate evil that we readers are supposed to fear? Is it that Ibn Awad, if he still lives, will use his Little Joes to vaporize a dozen American cities, or is it that he will get his hands on the Amphora Scroll and use it to disprove the basic beliefs of Christianity?
None of these few flaws is fatal to the book. To the contrary, twin beacons flash out through the gloom, each so intense you can hang your hat on it. First, McCarry is a helluva writer. Second, McCarry knows espionage. (Is there really a technique known as "waterfall surveillance?")