Does emotion play a role in your reading selections? Do you find yourself drawn to certain books or writers with intellect or emotion, especially when reading fiction? I make choices, mostly, with my intellect: I find the theme or plot or setting intriguing (I think that’s intellectual!) but at a certain point the emotions kick in. Sometimes they cause me to set the book aside.
That did NOT happen with Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn. I read a portion of a review in the Wall Street Journal (McCarry passed March 1 at age 88) and knew at once that I had to read it. Tears is an international thriller, based on political intrigue surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. (If you were at least twelve years old then, it’s likely you still remember what you were doing and where you were when you heard that news.)
Everyone knows a guy named Oswald pulled the trigger. Most people recall Jack Ruby shot Oswald dead – out of grief and revenge? But most people wonder who was behind the assassination. Was it the Russians? The Mafia? Castro? LBJ? The CIA? The Warren Commission never arrived at a satisfactory proof beyond Oswald. To this day, whomever ordered JFK’s assassination remains an untold mystery and is likely to stay that way: in 2017, President Trump put a lid on revealing new insights from old documentation. That’s politics, folks!
And that’s what makes McCarry’s 1975 novel so fascinating: Paul Christopher, a CIA operative, has an utterly distinct and difficult to believe theory about who did it. That in itself makes this novel hard to put down; I not only read it at bedtime, but picked it up again in the morning, coffee in hand, instead of reading the newspaper.
But if you’ve read many mystery or thriller or intrigue novels, you know that some, try as they might, are filled with one worn-out trope after another and dull as a box of rocks. These authors simply lack the skills to get the people and their story off the ground and it shows. (No names, but you know who they are.) McCarry is not one of them: he is an extremely talented, skillful writer, able to weave Christopher’s psyche, his past, his problems and his love life into the story in a most intellectually satisfying and emotionally convincing manner. I mean, hey, just look at the title and you’ll see what I mean.
But if you still don’t believe me, here’s a passage that may convince you that Charles McCarry was a writer quite a few cuts above the average:
“The met once or twice a year in Washington. Patchen’s wife was gone, like Cathy Christopher. Patchen and Christopher saw changes in once another, but the changes were physical. Their minds were as they had always been. They believed in intellect as a force in the world and understood that it could be used only in secret. They knew, because they had spent their lives doing it, that it was possible to break open the human experience and find the dry truth hidden at its center. Their work had taught them that the truth, once discovered, was usually of little use: men denied what they had done, forgot what they had believed, and made the same mistakes over and over again. Patchen and Christopher were valuable because they had learned how to predict and use the mistakes of others.”