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Book Review

McCarry's back on track but series has run its course

Christopher’s Ghosts
By Charles McCarry
Overlook, 272 pp., $25

It is a pleasure to report that Charles McCarry has regained his form after stumbling in his last book, "Old Boys." "Christopher's Ghosts" is a fine, free-standing spy story about the childhood of master spy Paul Christopher, as well as essential reading for McCarry addicts.

John le Carre's gems featuring George Smiley have no equals in espionage fiction, but the best of McCarry's extended Christopher saga run a strong second. There's no shame here. No one has touched le Carre at the peak of his powers. McCarry's books are generally excellent and the man is a sly, knowing writer.

That said, it's time for McCarry to roll up the Christopher operation and find new arenas in which to use his formidable writing gifts. We've followed Christopher and the same marvelous cast of spooks in his previous six-book arc and, much as we love them, this gang should quit the field.

It is also with this book that we tire of McCarry's extended obsession with another of his creations, Christopher's mother, Lori. This German aristocrat, who dominated the last outing, is back, once again a powerful, remote figure. The problem is that anyone who read "Old Boys" knows what happened to her, so the thrill is gone. More than a few of them, I'm sure, wonder why the Christopher saga didn't end there.

"Christopher's Ghosts" begins in Berlin on the eve of World War II and ends in the late '50s at sea off the German coast. It is 1939, and Lori is married to Hubbard Christopher, a huge, toothy product of an Episcopal school in New Hampshire -- read St. Paul's School -- then Yale and Skull and Bones. He later becomes the OSS chief of station in Berlin, only to be murdered there. (We never learn how she and Hubbard, two cosmically different people from different cultures, hooked up or much about their relationship. There's a wonderful story to be told about them that has nothing to do with espionage or the kid.)

Hubbard spends much of his days writing, rather dreamily, while his wife remains an outspoken Nazi critic. Paul, meanwhile, grows up a fluent Berliner with an American passport. At great risk, Lori and her husband ferry Jews to safety in Denmark at night aboard their sailboat and maintain a close friendship with O.G. Sackett at the American Embassy, who will later run the CIA. Thus far, Lori has been protected from Nazi predations by her storied family name.

The Christophers eventually attract the attention of Reinhard Heydrich, the real-life nightmare who ran the SS secret police. Like Lori, he reappears in this book after "Old Boys." He knows everything, including the clandestine night sails, but is smitten by Lori and shields her in exchange for time with her. She agrees in order to keep her family alive.

But they are never safe. Enter Major Stutzer, a twisted Gestapo officer and an Inspector Javert of a man who pursues the Christophers and Paul's Jewish girlfriend, Rima. Paul, then 16, watches the Nazi noose tighten around those he loves, and, against his wishes, is sent to America by his parents, who remain in Berlin. He immediately returns to Germany with plans to save Rima by sailing from Lori's family's ancestral estate on the island of Rugen to Denmark.

In the second part of the book, Christopher, now a star agent of the CIA, is dispatched to Berlin by O.G., its director, to foil a plot. There, he finds Stutzer, now unrecognizable from his past.

Nothing more should be revealed about this piece of "Christopher's Ghosts" except to say it is a taut spy story with strong plotting and writing. McCarry is back on his game, which is a relief and a delight. For the next one, though, what about a doozy in the Mideast without Paul Christopher?

Sam Allis is a member of the Globe staff.