Obituaries

Charles McCarry, CIA officer who became a preeminent spy novelist, dies at 88

Charles McCarry spent almost 10 years in the CIA as an undercover agent, operating alone as he roamed throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. He never carried a gun.

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, Mr. McCarry used many of those elements in what came to be seen as his masterpiece, ‘‘The Tears of Autumn.’’ But when he turned in his manuscript, it was initially rejected by his publisher.

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‘‘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?’’

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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.’’

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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, Virginia. 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 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.

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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.

‘Mr. McCarry is the American le Carré, equaling him stylistically but surpassing his English counterpart in terms of intellectual depth and moral clarity.’

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 eight novels. In many ways, he was Mr. McCarry’s alter ego — a ‘‘singleton’’ spy who traveled on his own, seeking to advance US 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 Mitchell. In 1958, Mr. McCarry joined the CIA after Mitchell suggested him to CIA director Allen Dulles.

At 5 feet 10 inches tall and wearing heavy-framed glasses, the unarmed Mr. McCarry didn’t match the James Bond image of a spy, but he spent nine years overseas in clandestine service.

‘‘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.’’