Today's post is a contribution to Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books project. Thanks for asking me to play, Patti!
THE SECRET LOVERS by Charles McCarry
Thanks to the fine work of the Overlook Press, Charles McCarry seems to be enjoying something of a rediscovery. If you’ve heard of him, the title you probably know is The Tears of Autumn (1974), McCarry’s extraordinarily plausible alternate history of the Kennedy assassination. At the center of that book is CIA operative Paul Christopher, whose investigation leaves him outside the organization and exiled from everything he loves.
But what does Christopher love, or what did he? The Secret Lovers, published three years after The Tears of Autumn but set three years before the Kennedy assassination, in 1960, tells the story. The title is a pun, referring not only to lovers who hide their relationships, but to the people like Christopher and his colleagues who love secrets for their own sake.
We meet Paul Christopher in Berlin, where a German courier passes him a manuscript written by a Russian dissident. The courier is killed in a hit-and-run accident moments later, and Christopher must find the source of the leak that led to the courier’s death.
The urgency of this search parallels the desperation Christopher feels about his marriage to Cathy, a beautiful and mercurial American who has only the vaguest understanding of Christopher’s real job. All Cathy knows is that some portion of Paul’s mind is constantly preoccupied, hidden from her, unavailable. Her need for his undivided attention spurs her to more and more irrational behavior — public infidelities, tantrums, fights.
Regardless of the leak within his operation, Christopher’s mission is to get the Russian dissident’s manuscript published. A key part of this plan is Otto Rothchild, a legendary, semi-retired agent now living in Paris with his wife Maria, herself a former agent. Otto is confined to a wheelchair, the victim of a mysterious medical disorder; Maria has given up her professional life to care for him. Otto and Maria are the Christophers’ only friends as a married couple, and Maria is one of the few people who can understand Cathy’s torment.
Of course, since The Secret Lovers is a spy novel, nothing is as it seems. Christopher’s loyalties make him vulnerable at every turn. That those loyalties will betray him is not a surprise. How they betray him is truly shocking. The Secret Lovers is a violently romantic novel, in the classic sense of that word: the characters act not out of logic, but out of raw emotion. It’s one of those rare books that demands a reader’s heart as well as her mind, and is my favorite Cold War espionage novel.