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by Charles McCarry
Duckworth Overlook, January 2013
320 pages
7.99 GBP
ISBN: 0715645021

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Paul Christopher is an American covert agent. In 1960 he is called to Berlin to take possession of a manuscript smuggled out of Russia; the courier is run down and killed minutes after handing over the document. Christopher examines the stages of the operation in minute detail to find out why, and in the process delves into the past of the agents involved, many of whose early careers were founded in the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War and WWII. He is distracted from his work by the activities of his beautiful but troubled wife, who finds it difficult to cope with her exclusion from his covert life.

THE SECRET LOVERS, written in 1977, is one of McCarry's several Paul Christopher novels, which have received high praise. The 1960 date sets the book in a period when politics were dominated by the cold war, and WWII recent enough for it to be fundamental to an understanding of many of the key characters. These features, the strong emphasis on tradecraft, and the detailed dissection of human nature, is reminiscent of John le Carré, with whom McCarry has been compared.

The threat of the Soviet menace is however perhaps not conveyed as convincingly as in le Carré. Motivated as he is, Christopher's painstaking investigations are really only of academic interest - the book has reached the West and will be published, so the demise of the author and the few couriers who brought the book out of Russia is not a matter of great concern. Moreover, the revelation as to who is essentially revealed some halfway through the book; the only uncertainty is why, the tension being thereby partially relieved well before the denouement.

Plenty is said as to Christopher's need to distance himself from his feelings to perform his work effectively, and the difficulties this imposes on his personal life outside his work. His feelings are conveyed in a believable way, and he is an interesting study. But you do feel that his perfection is somewhat overdone: his ability to speak at least five languages like a native in each, for example. Even his weakness as regards his wife is not the kind of weakness that we see in a le Carré character like, say, Smiley. And his wife is herself a little too much - supposedly so beautiful that she could always rely on others to wake her up in the morning, read a map, carry money, make telephone calls or write a letter, so she never learnt to do any of those things.

Despite the above quibbles, THE SECRET LOVERS is quality spy fiction and those who like the genre should certainly give McCarry a try. The book is well-written, and the depiction of the work of an agent and the stresses thus imposed upon him very convincing, reflecting the author's professional experience as an agent himself.

§ Chris Roberts is a retired manager of shopping centres in Hong Kong, and now lives in Bristol, primarily reading.

Reviewed by Chris Roberts, February 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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