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Book Review: Ark by Charles McCarry

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Charles McCarry and his ‘spy’ novels featuring Paul Christopher have been my little secret for awhile. McCarry, for my money, is the only spy novelist that can stack up to John Le Carré. His prose is brilliant, his books are, without fail, excellent. But, almost nobody has heard of him.

Despite the same “wink, wink” insider knowledge shared by Le Carré and McCarry (they both worked for their countries’ spy agencies at the same time) McCarry is more ‘old boy’ Georgetown, upper crust uber patriot where Le Carré maintains an air of cynical, seedy glamour.

What separates McCarry’s Paul Christopher from the usual American spy novel is that he eschews the tongue-in-cheek derring-do of superheroes on the order of James Bond instead writing realistic character studies of complex human beings under stress and the interaction of different cultures and the characters that inhabit those cultures. Additionally, McCarry’s storylines somehow seemed drawn from actual CIA case books. In short, they were topical. For instance, The Miernik Dossier (1973). Is the story of how every intelligence agencies on both sides of the Cold War swarm like vultures over an obscure Polish functionary who may be about to defect. There is an air of doubt in the protagonist and in the major players on both sides that lends a certain ambiguity that borders on the mythical.

While trying to determine whether this potential defector, of dubious value, is the real thing or a red herring thrown out as bait by one or the other of the competing sides, brings to question just how much time and effort and money was spent by both sides and just what the return on value was for those investments. This moral dilemma weaves through an exciting search for an answer and leads to a vivid chase story through Eastern Europe and the Middle East. And adding another intellectual layer to the plot is an even deeper trek through the mind and personality of Miernik himself, an irritating, untrustworthy, courageous and obstinately undecipherable man in his motivations and importance.

“The Tears of Autumn” was another brilliantly portrayed story dealing with the CIA in Vietnam, almost a sequel to Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.” It tells another, rather believable alt-history of the assassination of JFK. Through nearly 40 years of McCarry’s spy novels, I felt that I had my own private, intellectual alternative to the adventure-spy novels that were en vogue. Don’t get me wrong, a number of McCarry’s novels made the New York Times Bestseller’s List, but they were the type of books that made the list then swiftly disappeared, like one of his characters. What’s worse is they went out of print as well.

All of this is in preference to why I picked up Ark when I saw it in the publisher’s catalog. I was somewhat disappointed when I saw the book was science fiction and not another Paul Christopher novel, but it was not just the subject matter that kept me reading McCarry since the early ‘70s. It was also for the beauty of his prose, the depth of his stories and the marvelous, flesh and blood character studies.

I grew up on the sci-fi of Bradbury, Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and others. Writers who put the emphasis on science in science fiction. I had slowly migrated away from the genre over the past couple of decades when sci-fi took on more of a fantasy bent, but I figured that with McCarry’s talents, and his seeming insider knowledge of the world of government espionage, he might bring that to the world of sci-fi.

I’m sorry to say that I was wrong. First. Ark takes a dead horse and bets it some more; the world’s about to end, and lets save it. Its almost a cliché from plot to print. An apocalyptic story that adds nothing to the canon.

The story revolves around the world’s first trillionaire, Henry Peel. Henry starts off as an unbelievable character, not because his net worth is astronomical, but because we are led to believe that he got it all honestly, without making many major enemies of businessmen or governments. He’s also the worlds smartest, most brilliant mind. Equally astronomically talented in science, engineering–all fields of course–mathematics, art, you name it, Henry has it. He’d embarrass the Corona guy. Henry is a recluse, and other than his clichéd genius attributes (his mind tends to wander, he’s not a great conversationalist, dresses shabbily, etc…) he’s likeable. He’s sort of a Bill Gates-Howard Hughes mish-mash with rock star overrtones. The odd thing here is that Henry, despite his unrealistic background and trite makeup, is an interesting character study worthy of McCarry’s reputation.

Henry has discovered that the world is about to end. The ‘disaster’ is the all too familiar “earths core-swapping poles” variety of disaster. Further, he has calculated the exact date and in genius fashion has come to the conclusion that collectively, all the world’s governments and scientists can’t or won’t in time, do anything to prevent it or mitigate the outcome. So, he sets out on an ultra secret mission to save mankind, or at least preserve it. He assembles a team of experts in all fields and a team of scientists and engineers from all of his companies to come up with his solution.

The book is narrated by a female author, recruited for her ‘creative imagination’ in solving puzzles in her literature. Her purpose for being recruited is unconvincing, but I guess he needed a writer since she is telling the story. The plan, as it evolves is to build a series of space “Arks” that will transport a few hundred or thousand people into space, sending them on a thousand year mission, carrying a cargo that is not revealed until nearly half way through the book.

There are minor subplots involving the narrator dealing with stalkers, the ethical questions in who to save, how to keep it secret, what to save, etc… there are also the inevitable “leaks” to be plugged, romantic disharmonies and so on. None of these subplot seem to lead the reader to new ground, and most fizzle out before being resolved.

The story further asks the reader to suspend belief in the setting that Henry, in his uber genius, chooses for building these never-beforeachieved in scope engineering projects under the nose of one of the most specious governments in the world. And in their backyard. Throughout the story, the need for secrecy is paramount. If governments catch wind of this project, they would naturally want to take it over and bend Henry’s logic, selection process, and decisions to their own national goals. So Henry decides to build and launch the Arks from Mongolia. China’s neighbor and proxy. China is being ultra protective of anything in Asia, and he decides to carry out his project under its nose. This grows even more odd, and reeks of misogamy, racism, and a Nazi-like “superior race,” among other things, when Henry chooses Chinese women of a particular racial purity as the only ones fit to do repetitive manual labor. Having small hands but not seen fit to saves, he also sets out to”improve” the breeding stock of those chosen to be the progenitors of the human race a thousand years from now.

The only redeeming quality of Ark is that McCarry’s prose is engaging and will keep the reader reading, despite the other failings. The plot at times is interesting, and believable for stretches (before ultimately falling flat) and Henry Peel, in a twisted way, is likeable despite being alternately, a genius on a par with Asimov’s “Mule” of The Foundation Trilogy, a hustler, a mad scientist, visionary, or an Asperger-ish nerd who owns half the world’s money supply and has options on the other half. Discounting the pedestrian nature of the coming disaster, Henry’s plan to save mankind seems heroic and unselfish and then tainted with “master race” motivations. In total, Ark a jig-saw puzzle of a novel with a lot of pieces missing.

Ark

  • Paperback: 320 pages Publisher: MysteriousPress.com/Open Road (November 22, 2011)
  • Language: English ISBN-10: 1453258205 ISBN-13: 978-1453258200

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I was born in Pomona, California at a very young age. I had a pretty normal childhood…or I was a pretty normal child hood if mom is telling the story. I was a paperboy and washed cars. I was a soda fountain jock-jerk and a manic mechanic but my first real job was as a labor organizer in a maternity ward. Then, because of the misjudgment of a judge I spent nearly 10 years in the service of our country mostly on KP duty. Our country sure turns out a lot of dirty dishes. I am a past master at pots and pans. They eventually recognized my real talent and let me wander around some very unfriendly places carrying a big radio that didn’t work. Along the way I took up the bass guitar, jotting down stories, electronic engineering and earned a degree in advanced criminal activities. I spent most of my adult life, if you can call it that, working in the I.T. industry, which I was particularly suited for since we worked in rooms with no windows. On and off I taught in colleges, universities and reform schools as a student teacher… I like smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, and crowded seedy bars where I have been known to quote Raymond Chandler as pickup lines. I have always been a voracious reader, everything from the classics, to popular fiction, history to science but I have a special place in my heart for crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction and noir. I write a book and music review blog for all genres at The Dirty Lowdown. And another dedicated to Crime Fiction and all things Noir called Crimeways. It’s named after the magazine that appeared in the Kenneth Fearing classic, The Big Clock. There I write scholarly reviews of the classic hard boiled, noir and crime fiction books from the 20's through today. Mostly I drool over the salacious pictures on the covers. I also write for Tecnorati/BlogCritics where i am part of a sinister cabal of superior writers.