Charles McCarry, The Mulberry Bush
Charles McCarry’s well regarded spy fiction is noted for the clarity and assurance with which he depicts not only the spy trade but also the them-or-us oppositions of historical and cold-war espionage (not for him the gray areas of LeCarre’s maze of spies and counter-spies). But his new stand-alone The Mulberry Bush (not a part of the multi-generational saga of must of his spy fiction) starts in full post-Cold-War mode, with the unnamed narrator and central character cultivating a spy in Argentina who is providing useless information about long-retired revolutionaries. But almost immediately the story shifts into another mode, one that has less in common with the range of current spy fiction and more in common with one of the classics of American intelligence, Roger Hall’s World War II era memoir You’re Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger. McCarry has drawn a portrait of the training of intelligence agents that I recognize from my own very brief and totally undistinguished experience in counterintelligence: not since You’re Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger has anyone so deftly portrahed the blend of the ridiculous, the momentous, and the self-obsessed that characterize the training and conduct of spycraft.
Hall’s 1957 memoir covers the final years of the World War II era OSS. The book, out of print for a number of years but brought back into the light of day a few years ago by the Naval Institute Press, has been widely read among CIA employees and was (when I was there) the most-circulated book in the library of the Army intelligence school. McCarry’s book shares with Hall’s a smart-ass narrative voice that is frequently comic but self-centered to an extent that the reader is wise not to take anything he says totally at face value. The narrators also share an ostentatious false modesty about their athletic abilities as well as a less than total dedication to the intelligence agency for which each works. Hall is simply not a professional spy. He ended up in the OSS for the same reason I ended up in Army Intelligence: it was a less unattractive option than alternatives like infantry. McCarry's unnamed narrator, though, has a more serious motive for becoming a spy. He wants to destroy the (also unnamed) agency that humiliated and expelled his father, who discredited himself as a spy by indulging in pranks that are very like the ones that Roger Hall gleefully remembers from his own career.
After his recruitment and training, the narrator spends five years in the field, as a special operations agent (that is to say, he's arranging assasinations rather than cultivating spies), but when it becomes obvious that his cover has been compromised he returns to Washington. Once there, he has little to do, beyond studying Russian (with an eye toward future assignments) and look for his estranged father. After a single encounter, before his father's death, he begins to plot a revenge on the unnamed institution that had betrayed him, in particular the Agency’s Headquarters staff. He finds the ammunition for his revenge plot in the very attractive Argentinian spy that we met in the opening pages, Luz Aguilar, who he thinks will lead him to the radical associates of her “disappeared” parents who may still be in contact with Russian intelligence agencies that, in the days of the Soviet Union, were the major support of left-wing movements throughout Latin America.
Having accomplished his goal of insinuating himself first with the Argentine left and thene with the Russians, the narrator shuttles back and forth among clandestine meetings in the major cities of Europe and South America, including Buenos Aires, Helsinki, Berlin, Bogotá, and Bucharest, but the city hs evokes most concretely is Washington DC (one of his clandestine meetings occurs outside a café I can see from my office window). This is not the Washington of high politics, but of the mundane life that can be so easily exploited as cover for the movements and actions of spies of all stripes.
If the story of The Mulberry Bush sounds complicated, it is. The narrator needs the assistance of Luz (who burns with her own heat of revenge), his handlers at the Agency (Tom Terhune and Amzi Strange, old hands implicated in his father’s failure), Luz's foster father Diego, a Russian spy named Boris (among other agents on all sides of the post-Cold-War map), and others. All in aid of a complex effort to discredit the Agency by means of the false defection of Boris (who may already in fact be an American “asset”). The book's plot is circular, rather than linear (as the title’s reference to a child’s song/game suggests: both the spy trade and the narrator’s revenge plot are enlessly circling games with no end point. Second, there's no such thing as a mulberry "bush," the mulberry is a tree; nothing here is what it claims to be. The narrator continues chasing the ghosts of his own father’s life in a tightening spiral that leads to a violent ending, echoing the fate of Luz’s parents and offering a final glimpse of what the narrator calls a “worldwide fellowship” of trators lying behind everything that has happened. All of the complexities leading up to this ending are deftly kept under control by the narrator’s clever and personable voice (not unlike Roger Hall’s), as if he were sitting next to you relating over dinner his jaundiced but entertaining vision of the world we live in and the intelligence agencies that use their intricate tradecraft to exploit our hopes and fears.