In a genre that often feels over-familiar in the execution, Charles McCarry’s The Miernik Dossier (1973) stands out as a first-rate spy thriller that’s also distinctively different. It’s classic spy fiction that also succeeds as a unique formal exercise and as a moving character study.
Set in the late 1950s, it’s the story of a Polish national, Tadeusz Miernik, who works for the World Research Organization in Switzerland, a hotbed of international spy activity. When Miernik’s contract with the WRO isn’t renewed, he’s summoned home, but fears that his superiors may have targeted him for execution due to his western connections. Miernik’s “friends” in the WRO include CIA man Paul Christopher and MI6 agent Nigel Collins, who immediately suspect that Miernik’s situation may be an elaborate set-up for a staged defection operation by the Soviets. Desperate, Miernik accepts an invitation to accompany a Sudanese prince named Kalash el Khatar on an international road trip from Switzerland to the Sudan. Christopher and Collins come along for the ride, and as the journey continues, their suspicions mount. Is Miernik the clumsy, unfortunate man he claims to be, or is he an unusually brilliant agent, spearheading a Soviet proxy war in North Africa?
The story is told as a series of documents in a file: agent reports, cables, interviews, surveillance transcripts and diary entries. It makes for a slow going at first, as the writing style for many of the documents is cold and professional, driven by fact and surface observations. But through this clinical accumulation of information, the plot is gradually synthesized, and later McCarry affords some of his characters (particularly Christopher and Miernik) literary affectations in their respective filings. The eventual effect of this fragmented narrative is startlingly engrossing, a little like an exercise in intelligence analysis. Can all the sources be trusted? Can any of them? Who is seeing the situation clearly and who’s vision is clouded? It’s a dazzling hall of mirrors.
One thing that does shine through clearly, however, is the subject of all this to-do: Tadeusz Miernik, easily one of spy fiction’s most memorable characters. An ugly, awkward, and unlucky man, he cuts rather a tragic, hapless figure, and yet there’s an inscrutable cunning to him, and a noble streak. The many international agents monitoring his journey can’t tell if he’s a fool or a genius, and even in the novel’s final moments, the question lingers. It’s a magnificent portrait of a man nobody seems to like, and nobody seems able to figure out.
Meanwhile the party’s journey, which features stops in Austria, Czechslovakia, Italy, Egypt, and the Sudan, is full of colorful intrigue, romance, and adventure, the specter of World War II looming over the landscape in the paranoid new Cold War. It delivers the familiar trappings of genre, but the varied delivery is challenging and memorable. And in the end, like most great spy fiction, it thought-provokingly questions the means and the ends, the costs and the benefits, and the very nature of the business. It’s a remarkable achivement, easily among the best spy novels I’ve ever read.