Thursday, July 16, 2009

Shelley's Heart by Charles McCarry

Why don't more people read Charles McCarry? His espionage and political fiction is among the most intelligent and best-written to be found in any genre and yet--despite the best efforts of Overlook Press which, for the last several years, has been bringing his long out of print titles back at a rate of one or two a year--hardly anybody knows about him. As each of his books is rereleased there is a small flurry of critical acclaim...but hardly any recognition among the book buying public.

McCarry's body of work, for the most part, relates the lives and careers of two families who have intermarried with one another for generations, the Christophers and the Hubbards. The spy fiction follows Paul Christopher, poet and deep undercover operative (a position that McCarry himself held with the CIA in the late fifties and early sixties); the political fiction centers on the Hubbards who work in the political arena, at high levels but in crucial support positions (sometimes in the public eye, sometimes behind the scenes). Together these novels tell an alternative--and sometimes prescient--history of the U.S. In The Better Angels, first published in 1979, the Hubbards help to steal a presidential election in much the same way, one might posit, that the election of 2000 was stolen. Not only that, but in this same novel a terrorist organization uses a commercial jet airliner as a weapon.

Shelley's Heart, originally published in 1995 and rereleased just this year, takes up mere months after The Better Angels ends. The stolen election has been made public and there is a campaign to remove the incredibly popular incumbent, Bedford Forrest Lockwood, down home man-of-the-people, champion of liberal causes, from office and swear in his opponent, former president Franklin Mallory.

The political action is fascinating and compelling. The machinations of power, the buying and selling of favors, cross and double-cross; sometimes it's all so intricate one has to backtrack a few pages to ensure correct understanding. Even more compelling is the study of how far a good man will go for the greater good. Can a moral and honest person justify stealing, cheating, even killing, if it moves forward an agenda which he sees as bigger than mere people (the Cause, as it's often referred to)? And how can he live with himself--and his loved ones--if he takes such an action? But best of all is the interplay between the two presidents--superficially exact opposites, but at a deeper level so much the same. They are old opponents and old friends, who can deplore the other's platform while admiring his character.

Charles McCarry writes a smart book for a discerning reader. Although his books are called genre fiction because the action of the stories is espionage or political, it is impossible to pigeonhole them as "merely" genre: the writing is too good, the characterizations too complex and sharply drawn, and the insights too deep.

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