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BOOK REVIEW

McCarry's thriller 'Old Boys' is a trip past believable

The good news is that Charles McCarry, who resides in the upper reaches of spy fiction's Mount Olympus, is back after a six-year hiatus. The less wonderful news -- it can hardly be called bad -- is that he has written a romp instead of a thriller.


Old Boys
By Charles McCarry
Overlook, 476 pp., $25.95


"Old Boys" is a large yarn that will make yummy reading between long looks at Nantucket Sound this summer. (And a boffo movie in the right hands.) But it is a tale that travels from the outlandish to the absurd. As long as readers don't expect the taut realism we have come to expect from the man, they'll be fine. If they're looking for vintage McCarry, though, this will produce unhappy campers.

The book does not approach his better grownup fiction. It is not in the same league, for example, with "The Miernik Dossier," the small gem that made McCarry's career. Rather, it is something of a "Treasure Island" for lovers of spook fiction, a near-juvenile adventure that entrances adults who know better with fabulous writing.

What they do get is a fleeting reprise of McCarry's great creation, Paul Christopher. Christopher, the spy whom many first met in McCarry's bestseller "The Tears of Autumn," is now an opaque older man and an ascetic survivor of a Chinese prison camp.

In the book, he surfaces and disappears, together with characters and histories from past books, in what appears to be one last picture show.

Readers also are treated to McCarry's lambent prose once more. Like the late Ross Thomas, he writes smart. He still runs with a narrative and knows what pacing is all about. Droll and sharp, he offers such lines as: "Stephanie was looking at me as if I were a Jehovah's Witness who had knocked on her door at the crack of dawn -- harmless, perhaps, but having nothing sensible to say and far from welcome." And this: "It does focus the mind wonderfully to be the subject of a fatwa."

"Old Boys" is narrated by Horace Hubbard, a cousin of Christopher and the kind of leggy gentleman spy who peopled the Outfit, as they called the CIA, in its early days. The book begins with the disappearance of Christopher from his Georgetown home and later, news from the Chinese that they have his ashes in an urn. He apparently died in a remote region near Tajikistan. How? And is he really dead?

Hubbard thinks not. He assembles five retired spooks, once peerless agents, who form an over-the-hill gang to search for Christopher. McCarry's grasp of them is acute. Take Ben Childress, a legendary Arabist:

"The Outfit's lifeblood had been a combination of bright young men with freedom of speech and older men who listened to them because they had once been bright young men themselves. Ben had once been a bright young man. The problem was, he had remained a bright young man well into old age."

This group of enlarged prostates crisscrosses the globe in search of leads; they find themselves up against an Arab terrorist with a dozen nuclear weapons at his disposal and a grudge against Hubbard. Hubbard alone is involved in near-death experiences in Brazil, Moscow, Budapest, and China.

Christopher, in turn, may be in search of his mother, a German aristocrat long thought to have perished in World War II. Maybe not. Maybe she was forced to be the mistress of the Nazi nightmare, Reinhard Heydrich. Maybe she escaped his clutches and made an incredible journey from Czechoslovakia, to Hungary, Israel, Iran, and beyond.

Stay with me now. McCarry also introduces a mysterious first-century scroll found in an amphora in a sunken Roman ship that, if made public, might destroy Christianity as we know it. The terrorist wants the scroll, wherever it is.

The final pages are touching and fine. There is uncommon
storytelling skill here. There always is from Charles McCarry. But while delighting in each page of "Old Boys," you eventually wonder about the whole. Is this really the way he wants the curtain to come down on his best creation? Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com

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