Saturday, November 23, 2013


If the Pulps StiII Thrived: Charles McCarry as a contemporary Blue Book writer

Imagine, if you will, that two venerable pulp magazines focusing on adventure fiction -- one aptly named Adventure, the other Blue Book -- still can be found on magazine racks in convenience stores and chain bookshops. That Adventure did not reach the end of its day as a men's sweat mag in 1971, as depicted in It'sA Man's World: Men's Adventure Magazines, The Postwar Pulps, but recreated itself in its own earlier image as a fiction magazine filled with adventure stories written by the finest members of Fawcett/Gold Medal's stable of PBO authors of crime fiction and westerns. That Blue Book did not die in 1956, to be resurrected also as a men's sweat mag titled Bluebook for Men, but continued to provide an outlet for stirring stories by John D. MacDonald, Frank Robinson, Richard Wormser, and Frank O'Rourke, plus writers new to its pages, such as Ed McBain (whose stories did appear in Argosy in the 1960s), Harry Whittington, Richard Wheeler, Mario Puzo, and others.

So, happily in our fantasy, you are able to go to a store and purchase the latest issue of Blue Book, which includes stories of adventure by folks writing in the tradition of the Blue Book of yore -- literate tales of adventure, of striving, of fighting and violence, of treasure and romance -- written in a readable, not-too-purple prose whose style emphasizes storytelling and entertainment, not shock and sensation.

One of those writers might be Charles McCarry.

I've been aware of McCarry only a short while, but each reference to him I've seen describes him as a "great but unknown" writer or, as in a article by Morton Marcus, "the undiscovered master of the spy novel."

I first heard of McCarry through separate mentions on two email discussion lists. First on Rara-Avis, a group dedicated to discussion of hard-boiled fiction (and named in honor of Caspar Gutman's nickname, rare bird, for the Maltese Falcon), when someone pointed to McCarry in a cyber- conversation about writers who were former CIA agents. The poster included this URL for an article by P.J. O'Rourke from the September 13, 2004 issue of The Weekly Standard, "No Country for Old Men: Charles McCarry's Gray-haired Spies Take a Curtain Call."

Ostensibly a review of McCarry's latest novel, OldBoys, the essay provides an overview of McCarry's literary career, and is a good introduction to his work.

The next mention of McCarry on an email list provided another URL, this one to an interview with the author at an online magazine, The Morning News.

In this, McCarry provides an interesting inside look at the CIA during his days as a Cold Warrior and at his cover as a writer while he was a spy.

Intrigued by these bits of info, I found a copy of Old Boys. I recommend it whole-heartedly to those readers looking for new writers who carry that torch of entertainment that lit the delights we find in old pulp magazines.

While reading this story, I could imagine it serialized in a contemporary version of Adventure or Blue Book -- covert meetings, encounters with mysterious and dangerous people in exotic locales (Paris, Moscow, Xinjiang, Brazil, Rome, Tel Aviv, Budapest, Kyrgyz, and more) international threats, personal danger, old Nazis, treasures to locate (a 2000-year-old Roman scroll originally unearthed by the Nazis, 12 nuclear bombs smuggled from a Soviet arsenal), betrayals, gunfights, hand-to-hand battles, spies and counterspies. In short, more than enough ingredients for a great adventure novel.

McCarry's writing style follows the pulp-style tradition, the non-florid (but not so spare as to be gaunt) but clean and smooth style of writers like Dashiell Hammett, George F. Worts (I'm thinking of the Peter the Brazen stories in Argosy), Theodore Roscoe, Talbot Mundy, Georges Surdez, and innumerable PBO (paperback original) authors for Gold Medal and other publishers (such as John D. MacDonald, Charles Williams, Dan Marlowe, Edward S. Aarons, Donald Hamilton and others). If you like the cool but elegant prose of spy story writer Alan Furst, you'll have an idea about the prose McCarry creates.

And McCarry gets kudos even from someone like Eric Ambler, no slouch in the thriller department.

Old Boys is not the latest book from McCarry, but it seems to wrap up a loose series of books about spy Paul Christopher and his nephew, spy Horace Hubbard. (The first of these books, The MiernikDossier, was also McCarry's first novel.) However, one doesn't have to read the entire series and know all the backstory to read and enjoy Old Boys. As noted, it was the first McCarry book I read, and I picked up all the character history I needed during the course of the narrative to rave about it here. I'll be going on the hunt for McCarry's other novels now.

We live in a fortunate time, now that all McCarry's books are back in print, primarily thanks to Overlook Press. You'll find Amazon's Charles McCarry page here.

As a former spook, it's appropriate for McCarry to have written a novel about the JFK assassination (a timely reference, since this month marks the 50th year from that murder): The Tears of Autumn. An article by Mark Judge about the novel and its implications, "Charles McCarry’s unbearable masterpiece," can be found here.

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