(Editor’s note: The following essay comes to us from author Kathleen George, a professor of Theatre Arts at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Taken, Fallen, Afterimage, The Odds (an Edgar finalist for Best Novel), Hideout, Pittsburgh Noir, and Simple. Her latest novel, A Measure of Blood, will be released later this month by Mysterious Press/Open Road, with The Johnstown Girls to follow in April. She wrote previously for The Rap Sheet about the 1981 film Body Heat.)
I discovered Charles McCarry at last
year’s ThrillerFest in New York City. He was on a panel--elderly, quiet, gentlemanly. But a look at the book jackets for The Secret Lovers (2006) and The Shanghai Factor (2013) told me McCarry had worked under deep cover for years as a CIA operations officer. The characters in those two books (and I intend to read the rest) are young, vibrant, sex-obsessed. And their lives--as international travelers--are fascinating.
McCarry has been compared by critics to John le Carré. Funny: Le Carré and McCarry. And I’m sure somewhere along the line people have wanted to pronounce it McCarRIE.” I loved The Secret Lovers and the double meaning of the title. Which word gets the emphasis?
But for now I’ll stick with The Shanghai Factor, which I’ve just finished and which persuaded me that this writer knows the world of secret agentry, the “tradecraft,” in an intimate way. He is by turns detailed and philosophical. The epigraph for Shanghai is a good indication of McCarry’s philosophical mindset: It’s from Laozi. “How do I know this is true? I look inside myself and see.”
The first-person narrator of The Shanghai Factor has, in an almost “cute meet,” a bike accident with Mei, a gorgeous young Chinese girl. He is aware of her skirt riding up over her white virginal panties while he, embarrassed about himself, the big American, thinks: “It was a hot muggy day. I needed a haircut. I hadn’t shaved. Chest hair tufted from the open neck of a shirt I had been wearing for three days.” Thus begins a relationship between an unknowable exotic beauty and a self-described large hairy American who feels both awkward and thrilled in her presence.
The narrator is supposed to operate as a “sleeper.” He’s supposed to “just be” until he’s contacted and told what to do. He doesn’t want to pretend to be a student, because he will have to answer the usual intrusive questions about his favorite writers, musicians, coffees. Thus, his
trade makes him a loner. He absorbs the culture of China and talks to few people, none at any length. All the while 12 men follow him wherever he goes, and he makes love with Mei almost every day. She continues to be his fantasy woman, both available and mysterious, calling the shots on her own schedule, and we begin to worry seriously about his welfare. This is one of the wonderful ways McCarry’s novel works--to make us nervous about this young spy who doesn’t know what he is supposed to do and must continue operating in a sort of dream while he waits for orders.
(Right) Charles McCarry
Eventually the narrator is summoned to a corporate job in China, paid a salary, and then later sent to the United States--Washington, D.C., and New York City. He receives a mysterious invitation to a christening in the mail. The names of the happy parents are completely unfamiliar to him. Yet he dresses and goes. The church doors are locked. “I lingered for a few minutes,” he tells us, “another breach of protocol, since the unmet agent is supposed to consider himself under observation by the
adversary and to slink away without delay.” Instead, he continues to the address for the reception in Manhattan’s Washington Square area. It doesn’t exist.
He philosophizes on this day: “The amount of time wasted every day by spies of all nations on comedies of errors of this kind would provide hours enough for a terrorist cell composed of two illiterate brothers and a cousin living in a cave to build a nuclear device.” Just when things seem
to be falling apart, a boy passing out flyers gives him one, saying, “special for you.” He is to go to the lobby of the historic Algonquin Hotel. Who wouldn’t want to take that order?
Our spy’s adventure does not unfold at the same pace as Homeland. Years go by. Years. The dream is full of unknowable and stupid machinations. When the narrator considers chucking it all, he comes to his own philosophical truth: He is a secret agent because life in the real world is pointless. To be a spy means to live in another universe in which things have their own logic, in which actions and events come from an alternative state of consciousness. “For years I had been left alone to enjoy the pleasures of learning to speak and read an ancient and beautiful language and the company of a brilliant woman who loved sex … What difference did it make if the work I did meant nothing, accomplished nothing, burned up money on an epic scale. What human endeavor was any different?”
Our narrator is caught, deep in the dream of a life that makes some sense to someone somewhere. I exited The Shanghai Factor wanting to be a spy even though I saw how pointless, not to mention deadly, most of it was.
READ MORE: “M Is for McCarry,” by TracyK (Bitter Tea and Mystery).