Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Better Angels by Charles McCarry

I've written before, if briefly, about Charles McCarry's Better Angels (Overlook Press), but at the time I didn't give it the attention it deserves. McCarry is one of the best writers of spy fiction around. He's also the king of the backstory.  In fact, I'd say 50% of Better Angels is backstory, but he manages it so seamlessly that you barely notice. It's also a novel that when published in 1979 must have been classified at the time as speculative fiction; but reading it thirty-two years later, it's not so far fetched at all, and hardly speculative. A liberal president has been elected, having deposed a incumbent right-wing, charismatic Republican who created a prison-industrial complex and something close to a police state. The latter is trying to get back into the White House. Meanwhile, the Arab world, through its oil, has a stranglehold on the west. The liberal president issues the order to assassinate  an Arab leader when he learns that the latter is about to hand over a nuclear weapon to a radical Islamic group. To protest the assassination, suicide bombers become an ever present threat. 

So far, so interesting. But McCarry is above all an excellent novelist, with an eye for detail and character. In fact, his characters never fail to be complex and interesting. This is the third novel I've read by him and, though I've been impressed with the other two, I would say so far this is his best. A former undercover Cold War intelligence officer operating in Europe, Africa and Asia, McCarrry knows what he's talking about. This might account for his early knowledge of computers, environmental politics and urban problems. Plus there's the matter of a rigged election.  McCarry even portrays- thankfully, still in the real of speculation- the imprisonment of children whose DNA might indicate future anti-social behavior and prison camps for dissenters in Alaska. On the other hand, he can't be faulted for not foreseeing  the collapse of the Soviet Union. McCarry is every bit as good as Le Carre (I think there's an Gaelic-French pun there somewhere).  Now I've got to get hold of the McCarry titles I've yet to read.

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