Novel: The Tears of Autumn by Charles McCarry

Reading Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn (1974) feels rather appropriate in the current political moment. It’s an espionage novel about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, written during the Watergate era; read it during the Trump ascendancy, and you’ve hit the trifecta for distinctly American conspiracy and scandal. McCarry’s long-running protagonist Paul Christopher is a poet, a romantic, and a globe-trotting agent-runner whose missions take him all over the world. When the murder of two Vietnamese leaders is followed soon thereafter by  JFK’s assassination, Christopher quickly seizes upon a theory as to how it happened, and quits the Central Intelligence Agency in order to pursue it, independent of potential government interference. His investigation takes him from the US to Vietnam to Europe to the Congo, in pursuit of the truth about one of the nation’s most tragic mysteries.

Characterized by McCarry’s eloquent prose, The Tears of Autumn makes for an interesting and insightful read, although the plot seems deliberately opaque, as information is frustratingly, if perhaps strategically, withheld from the reader. While it lacks the unique, formal brilliance of The Miernik Dossier, it most certainly possesses an authentic eye for tradecraft, geography, and character. At first, Christopher comes across as a fairly conventional superspy type, but McCarry builds his legacy nicely over the course of the book, and I came away from it rather fond of the character. I could have done without the snippets of racist and sexist description that occasionally creep into the narrative, although they’re practically subliminal compared to our current national dialogue. The overall theory behind the conspiracy makes for entertaining reading, even if the ultimate result of the investigation fails to surprise. “All my life I’ve believed that the truth is worth knowing, even if it leads to nothing,” Christopher tells his lover midway through the book. “It usually leads to nothing. But what else is there?” Then, as now, a damn good question. Dispiriting to think we’ve come no closer to answering it in nearly fifty years, and indeed may be further away. An interesting read.

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