Overlook. 272 pp. $25.00
For nearly 40 years, the spy novelist Charles McCarry has been writing frighteningly prescient books. In 1979, The Better Angels posited a plot by Arab terrorists to blow up passenger jetliners in flight over major cities around the world. In 1995, Shelley’s Heart revolved around the putative outcome of the 2000 presidential elections. In this fictional version of events that were then still five years into the future, a legal dispute arises over the close outcome of the balloting—the dispute centers on a few hundred votes in a single state—and ultimately the Supreme Court has to step in. A sitting President under impeachment is also involved, with a secret society at Yale thrown in for good measure. Islamist terrorists play a role, too.
Christopher’s Ghosts, McCarry’s latest novel, is not a look forward but rather a look backward, to Berlin 1939. As it opens, we are weeks shy of the outbreak of World War II. The Nazis have been in power for six years, but the worst is still to come, and McCarry’s main characters are ignorant of it.
The protagonist is Paul Christopher, who in his mature life has been the focus of McCarry’s previous books. Both he and his father are Americans, but Paul was born in Germany to a German mother and the family makes its home in Berlin. Lori, Paul’s mother, is a baroness from the old Prussian aristocracy, “a member of an ancient family, descended from ancestors who had fought and dined with Charlemagne during the First Reich.” Her lineage may thus be thought to grant her a certain immunity from Nazi inquisitiveness—so all her friends believe—but Lori herself is less sanguine; her father had been beaten to death by a “Bolshevik rabble,” and she fears that her son may meet a similarly untimely fate “at the hands of the politically insane” in late-30’s Berlin.
Indeed, the Christophers, who have been quietly ushering friends out of Germany and into Denmark on their sailboat, have been regularly rounded up for questioning by the SS. Paul’s father Hubbard views his Nazi tormentor, one Major Stutzer, with the unconcealed disdain of one who has never known unchecked tyranny. “He looked amused when being questioned by Stutzer,” we are told by the narrator, “as if he had bought a ticket to a play that was so bad that it was interesting.” And the narrator adds: “It was hard to imagine a more dangerous look to have on your face when visiting No. 8 Prinz-Albrechtstrasse.”
As for Paul, he is sixteen and in love, and, like his father, he too has yet to come to grips with the danger facing both him and the object of his affections: a partly Jewish girl who goes by the name of Rima. “She was pretty,” we are informed. “If she had been happy, she would have been beautiful.” As the first part of the novel comes to a close, Major Stutzer, who “could send [all these individuals] to a concentration camp or even summarily execute them” if he chose, has not yet made his move. But Paul has already experienced a coming-of-age under monstrous circumstances, an education in how deep evil can run.
If the first part of Christopher’s Ghosts is about the gathering storm that will culminate in World War II and the Holocaust, the second part skips those shattering events to pick up in the late 1950’s, on the eve of the erection of the Berlin Wall, and moves forward from there. It features Paul in the role familiar to McCarry readers—that of a cold-war espionage agent for the United States.
In earlier novels, Paul has unraveled JFK’s assassination, tracked down a scroll purportedly proving that Jesus was an asset of Roman intelligence, and (in The Better Angels) thwarted the terrorist who has been blowing up passenger planes over population centers. Along the way, he has also saved the members of a lost tribe of Israel who have been living as Muslims in the Atlas Mountains for generations.
In Christopher’s Ghosts, Paul investigates a Soviet plot to train Islamist terrorists while joining a semi-retired Mossad agent on a hunt for a Nazi in hiding. Less a James Bond type, as this might suggest, Paul is a different kind of spy altogether: the spy as student of human nature, the type who, eschewing weapons, relies on observation and knowledge of his fellow man to get by in the world. And this is why, as compelling and satisfying as the second half of Christopher’s Ghost is, the first half remains of greater interest: it explains how and why a man like Paul Christopher becomes the student of human nature that he is.
It is sometimes said of a certain kind of novel that it is “well-observed”—meaning that the novelist gets the little things right. McCarry does that. His descriptions of pre-war Berlin and his portraits of the main characters are particularly convincing. With a few characteristically deft strokes, he limns for us Rima’s father, Dr. Johann Kaltenbach. This is a man who
believed that the present political situation, as he called the [Nazi] dictatorship, would pass. In his own mind he was a German like any other. . . . Since childhood he had gone to church every Sunday and on all Christian holidays. He prayed as a Christian at meals and before he slept. He sang Stille Nacht on Christmas Eve.
As Rima explains, her father is “a Lutheran, and has been all his life.” But according to the Nuremberg laws, he has been deemed a Jew on the basis of his ancestry. Even so, he has persisted in his belief that it is all a mistake:
He still thinks it will be rectified, that everything will be rectified. I think he believes that the clock of existence has struck the wrong hour or something, and that the people who now rule Germany are men from Mars who somehow got lost in the universe and ended up on our planet. One day God, the supreme clockmaker, will notice this mechanical error and send them back where they came from, and all will be right with the world again.
This, then, is the position in which the characters find themselves. Paul is an American who the Nazis think might really be a German-born traitor. Rima, who by an accident of chronology falls just outside the reach of the Nuremberg laws, is a German who “for legal purposes,” in the words of Major Stutzer, “is not considered a Jew, but is a Jew just the same.” The fate of each, as of Paul’s American father and Aryan mother, hangs on the whim of an SS martinet. And protection is impossible to find. American officialdom is more or less helpless—in prewar Berlin, Washington has few eyes and ears on the ground and little or no capacity to act.
The Paul Christopher in the first half of Christopher’s Ghosts is a figure preparing for the future, a future marked by the full flowering of Nazi and Communist totalitarianism and its joint and several heirs. In 1939 Berlin, the Christophers and Rima learn that the individual stands precious little chance against an evil state apparatus that has set out to destroy him—especially an individual (like Paul and Rima’s respective fathers) who, by denying reality, disarms himself before his enemies.
This is the same lesson that informs the behavior of Paul Christopher the adult, the grown man who in the second half of the novel moves, under cover, in and out of the Soviet sector of Berlin to perform his acts of espionage and derring-do. When determined and evil men set out to do you harm, you can acquiesce or you can resist. What you cannot do, because they have already foreclosed that choice, is to ignore them altogether. Fortunately, however, well-placed, well-trained, and intelligent figures, serving their nation and the cause of good, can make a difference, at least some of the time.
Today, as large sectors of our own political class have adopted the position that the “war on terror” is nothing but a figment of the President’s inflamed imagination, and have effectively declared their intent to ignore the overriding reality of our time, this is an especially valuable lesson to relearn. Charles McCarry’s novels are as good a place as any to begin relearning it, and to be entertained and held in suspense into the bargain. You need not have read a Paul Christopher novel to appreciate Christopher’s Ghosts. (In my opinion, the masterpiece among McCarry’s works is The Last Supper, 1983.) But if this is your first, it is unlikely to be your last.