Charles McCarry, who passed away this past February at the age of 88, wrote what might be the most intriguing and enjoyable spy novels ever in his first novel The Miernik Dossier. The 1973 book is in the epistolary format, told through 89 different documents that make up the file looking at the suspected Polish spy Tadeusz Miernik. Agent reports, intercepted phone calls, secret recordings and more are all gathered to tell the story. It’s a tricky form to pull off but McCarry does it seamlessly, minimizing the pitfalls of a choppy or confusing narrative and maximizing the advantage of multiple points of view and surprising reveals. It also manages to put the reader in the position of CIA analyst. More than most books, you are left to sift through the evidence provided and come up with your own thoughts and on what is really going on.
The novel starts in 1959 as we meet a group of western spies all based in Geneva. There’s the American CIA agent, Paul Christopher, the MI6 man, Nigel Collins, a Sudanese Prince, Kalash al Khatar, the beautiful and troubled Holocast survivor, Ilona Bently and the mystery man, Tadeusz “Tad” Miernik. An overly complicated plan develops for the group to drive a Cadillac from Geneva to Sudan as a gift for Kalash’s father in order to infiltrate Sudanese terror group. Sneaking into Czechoslovakia to liberate Miernik’s sister, telling off German dog owners, gunfights with bandits are just some of the various escapades occur that bounce from deadly serious to farce and back again. Various western organizations believe that Miernik is a Communist spy working for Russia and Miernik becomes the lens through which the story is seen as various people observe him and attempt to discover the truth. The ending is both inevitable and shocking in equal parts.
If there was ever a novel that cried out for a special limited edition, it’s this one. I would love to see what a good graphic designer could do if tasked with “recreating” the various transcripts, journals and reports to make it look like you are reading a real dossier. There are other books like Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson, S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst, or the Griffin and Sabine series by Nick Bantock that have appeared to show the “real” documents that tell the story and add another layer of verisimilitude to the book.
While his next novel, The Tears of Autumn, is called by some his masterpiece, Miernik is by far the more challenging and risk taking book. It flips the typical spy novel on its ear and puts the reader to work. There were nine novels written with Paul Christopher as the lead and although Christopher gets more texture and layers in later books, his first is the best at probing the sense of the unknowable that is at the root of all espionage. There can be well educated guesses, but there is very little to be found in the way of absolutes. By putting the reader in the position of CIA analyst, this is made apparent in a way no other book has quite been able to show. McCarry may be a “forgotten” spy novelist, but his writing remains just as vital and vibrant as it was over forty years ago. It should be found on the shelves of every fan of spy fiction.
Finally just a special shout out to the group in the class I’m taking looking at the Cold War through fiction that’s offered by Chicago’s Newberry Library. Their insightful observations were very helpful as I formulated my own thoughts.
I previously wrote about a “lost” novel of McCarry’s here.