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Hidden agendas

April 16, 2006|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is a film critic for Time and the author of many books, including "Elia Kazan: A Biography," "Matinee Idylls: Reflections on the Movies" and "Good Morning Mr. Zip Zip Zip: Movies, Memory and World War II."

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The Last Supper

A Novel

Charles McCarry

Overlook Press: 390 pp., 24.95

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The Faithful Spy

A Novel

Alex Berenson

Random House: 352 pp., $24.95

IF you were to read Charles McCarry's "The Last Supper" and then follow it immediately with Alex Berenson's "The Faithful Spy," you would, in a matter of a week or two, find yourself in possession of a short, entertaining, albeit highly fictionalized, history of the CIA from its OSS beginnings in World War II through the Cold War and Vietnam to its struggles with Al Qaeda today. You would also find yourself contemplating two very different approaches to the art -- if that's the word one wants -- of the spy novel.

McCarry is one of the highly appreciated veterans of the genre, a writer of thoughtful, well-constructed prose whose works have frequently been compared to those of Graham Greene and John le Carre, which is a burden he didn't ask for and doesn't necessarily deserve. "The Last Supper" is nothing less than a full-scale biography of Paul Christopher, lead spook of McCarry's previous novels, from his birth in Weimar Germany to a peaceful retirement as the Cold War draws to an end. Or perhaps one should make that "leading victim," since Paul loses his parents and the woman he loves to the mega-historical ordeals of the 20th century and spends an arduous, annealing decade in a Chinese prison for no justifiable reason. Since Paul is one of a band of subterranean brothers, relationships with other familiar characters from McCarry's espionage epic are deepened, shadowy dots are connected and an utterly unexpected betrayal, requiring several decades to work out, is revealed.

Nothing so complicated is attempted by Berenson. He's a young New York Times reporter making his debut with a good, ripped-from-the headlines gimmick -- an American spy named John Wells penetrates Al Qaeda's inner circle, is disowned by the CIA but nevertheless must single-handedly try to prevent a dirty-bomb attack on the United States. Berenson is pretty much an action specialist whose prose is headlong and whose little gestures toward psychological nuance never delay the narrative rush of his storytelling. Essentially, he's a no-frills, plenty-of-thrills kind of guy.

Another way of putting all this is that McCarry's books get reprinted as trade paperbacks and have, so far, not been made into any movies, while one imagines that we'll find "The Faithful Spy" in supermarkets next year, with a "Soon to be a major motion picture" line on the cover. Which is also to say that in this branch of literature, as in all others, a kind of class warfare has been taking place for many decades. Devotees of the more-aspiring practitioners of the form (beginning probably with Greene) hold that the best works deserve to be taken as seriously as those by any literary fictioneer -- while conceding that, to this day, most spy novels should not be read in any place more prepossessing than the tourist section of an Airbus.

As a spy novel addict, I have to say that I don't care much for this argument. I read these books because they are the closest thing in print to movies of the kind they don't make anymore -- suspenseful and atmospheric yarns in which seemingly ordinary people (they're not, of course) do extraordinary things under the impress of duty and unpredictable circumstances. What's particularly agreeable about these fictions is that their writers have not found the literary equivalent of the special-effects sequence. Their protagonists pretty much go about their business the old-fashioned way, with guns, knives and chokeholds. And they do so in a noir-ish atmosphere -- inclement weather and dark alleys with alarming noises in the shadows. They are missions improbable but not impossible.

Forced to choose between the McCarry school and the Berenson school, I'd have to opt for the former, for two reasons: He is able to link field operations to the larger geopolitical issues of our recent history with some persuasiveness, and he has a good sense of the class issues that have plagued the CIA from the beginning. The novel that established McCarry was "The Tears of Autumn" in 1975, which argued that the JFK assassination was a revenge plot, engineered by the supporters of Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother, secret police chief Ngo Dinh Nhu, in retaliation for their murders, in which the Kennedy administration was complicit. I'm not sure I buy that theory, but it is typical of the way the author operates and adds a certain weight to his work.

He's more convincing (and entertaining) when he's showing how class prejudices operate within the confines of CIA headquarters. American espionage operations began as a kind of Ivy League playpen, a place where well-born and well-connected young men could engage in sometimes deadly games with their Nazi and Soviet counterparts as a kind of extension into the real world of Yale's secret societies and Princeton's eating clubs.

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