Monday, November 23, 2009

Old Boys

I believe I found a mystery bookstore in Greenwich Village called Partners & Crime whilst on a random walk to somewhere or other, and felt compelled to dip inside immediately. The bookstore was lined from wall to wall with thrillers and mysteries and espionage, the very latter of which I was looking to fill my own literary collection with. So I think I started to ask him about novels that would serve as an introduction to espionage, or maybe something that wouldn’t lose me immediately as “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” did (I’m sure this wouldn’t be the case if I started to read it today, the brain was not fully trained back then). The man from behind the counter suggested this book.

Author Charles McCarry, an ex-CIA agent and speechwriter for Eisenhower, penned 2004’s “Old Boys”. Here, the main protagonist Horace Christopher, retired CIA spy and cousin of master spy Paul Christopher, becomes distraught when after a night of a casual dinner with his cousin, Paul goes missing. He is later told, out of nowhere, by the Xinjiang police that Paul is dead and his ashes are then sent back to Horace for proper burial………..but something is ultimately fishy and unbelievable about the whole report. In a hidden letter left behind by Paul that Horace finds, it is revealed that Ibn Awad, a Middle-Eastern terrorist that Horace attempted to assassinate long ago, is still alive, along with 12 nuclear bombs and an interest in the Amphora Scroll, an artifact with old journalistic writings that may very well undermine one of the world’s widely held truths. So, Horace assembles the “Old Boys”, a group of old colleagues from the Outfit (the U.S. intelligence service [CIA?]), and sets out to seek for the truth about his cousin as well as The Amphora Scroll.

I was expecting more of a whodunit espionage than an adventure one, but I was not let down. I mean, unfortunately I still encountered the same old team of American Professional friends that were super loyal to each other, knew everything about everything and had all kinds of money and tools to their name, and were patriotic to the core. Unfortunately I still encountered the same old terrorist villain who has to be Middle Eastern by default and is concerned with nothing more than bombing the infidel Americans and having their belief system come crashing down. But what was engaging throughout all this was McCarry’s realist and moderate-pace approach to the writing. Far more realist than the other novels I’ve come across, such as the dreadful “Prayers For The Assassin”. Horace expresses small emotional connections to Ibn Awad in some places of the story (even if they are ones of mostly pity), instead of approaching him with wholesale, black-and-white American hatred. The descriptions of places such as Xinjiang and Ulugqat and Italy, as well as the characters and situations, are all expressed in an objective, to-the-point manner. The narrative moves quickly and is never repetitive or boring. There is some sap-killing energy in the dynamic between Horace and the group of “Old Boys”: Jack, Harley, Charley and David, each of whom have skills in their group role and political connections/cultural understanding of other countries. There comes some tension in between Jack and Horace in various moments, but other than that, all of them are like a tight-knit, simple and uninteresting group of friends in pursuit of the mad Mid-Eastern.

The Amphora Scroll was a fascinating and unique political treatment of the Book of John. The idea of Judas being sympathetic and Christ’s miracles amongst his spiritual campaign being powered by his own naivete, the overseeing of a Pharisee and the leadership and money of a Roman soldier held my attention more than the rest of the book.

“Old Boys”, at 473 pages, isn’t a lightning quick read, but it isn’t a massive volume of cranium crunching either. It’s a good balance of intelligence, character and fun that will peak an interest in McCarry’s earlier works.