The Tears of Autumn is a spy novel which takes place in the closing weeks of 1963, with the action taking place in the USA, in Europe and in Africa. It centers around the assassination of the Ngo brothers, Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu in Viet Nam, and the JFK assassination three weeks later. This period of history was when Viet Nam was on everybody’s mind and was seemingly the subject of every dinner conversation, whether the USA would intervene and send US troops.
McCarry gives a great description of the sanctimoniousness of political observers and followers which carries through to today. It doesn’t matter which ‘side’ the political pundits, professional or non, are on, their conduct is often like that of religious zealots. “I’m right!” “No! I’m right, and you’re going to hell for thinking you’re right!” McCarry sums it up nicely: “Power counts – and the right people are in power,” is the mantra of the winners, while the whiners blame it on anything that’s handy. The opening pages deal with Southeast Asia during the period leading up to and during the coup d’etat in Viet Nam, during which Nhu and Diem were killed.
McCarry’s continually, but subtly, showing the different sides of government and its actors. A diplomatic dinner, preceded and followed by the reality of living in the shadow world; hated by almost everybody, many of them in your own country, the same country you’re literally putting your life on the line for, daily. No wonder it’s so hard to get up in the morning every day. It makes no difference whether you’re dealing with diplomats or carrying a gun on the front lines. You’re hated by everybody, it seems. And then it gets worse.
We learn early on what a few honest words to a person who doesn’t want to hear them can do for a person’s career. Especially when one lives in the real world and has little use for politics, as does our protagonist in several of McCarry’s books, a man named Paul Christopher. Especially when the listener, Foley, turns out to be the President’s lapdog. In this case it takes only a matter of days until Christopher learns once again what plainspeak sounds like to a political animal. A friend tells him, “Dennis Foley wants your balls for breakfast.”
In this novel, Christopher is chasing down politicians, agents, Cubans, and Vietnamese gangsters, all in an attempt to verify RUMORINT, ‘rumor intelligence, as it’s called. The story he’s heard is that the JFK assassination was orchestrated by the Vietnamese in a complicated plot of revenge, and he’s attempting to see if the rumor holds up. To do so, he deals with a wide cast of enemies and friends, which take him to three continents and into several hairy situations. There are also several amusing situations along the way which add nicely to the plot.
The denouement is a surprise which doesn’t really leave the reader with much choice: Do I distrust all politicians, or just most of them?
Charles McCarry has written at least ten novels, some of which feature Paul Christopher. All of them are highly recommended, and I happen to think this is his best. If you aren’t a student of history to at least a small degree, a lot of the facts will be unfamiliar. This does not, however, take away from the novel. McCarry isn’t just a novelist – he lived the life of Paul Christopher prior to putting down his gun and picking up his pen. He writes of what he knows.
Here’s a quote from the pre-publication publicity which sums the plot up nicely: “Threatened by Kennedy’s assassins and by his own government, Christopher follows the scent of his suspicion – one breath behind the truth, one step ahead of discovery and death.”