[A few days ago I mentioned three passings, Michel Legrand, André Previn, and Ed Bickert. Today, three more.]
In the Crimes of the Century I include Brian Garfield and Charles McCarry.
While some fans argue that Charles McCarry was the greatest American spy novelist, I find the faint undercurrent of conservative politics — or at least a kind of sentimental elitism — a bit troubling. McCarry is the “thinking person’s spy novelist” only if that thinking person believes that the establishment naturally produces our best and brightest. However, that quibble hasn’t prevented me from reading every installment of the Paul Christopher series. The prose is masterful and the details are fresh. While most of the obits name-check his earliest books, in my view McCarry improved over time. If I had to pick one from McCarry’s heyday I might suggest Second Sight, which concludes a long family saga somewhat in the manner of bestselling mainstream authors of the era like Herman Wouk or James Clavell.
McCarry is frequently compared to John LeCarré. Both wrote enormous and sophisticated books full of betrayal and both careers peaked during the Cold War. For my money, LeCarré remains indisputably greater, although LeCarré also seemed to lose his way a bit after the fall of the Berlin Wall. McCarry’s delightfully direct thriller from 2004, Old Boys, showed a possible way to go forward, although that momentum was lost in the following Christopher’s Ghosts. A surprising attempt at dystopian science fiction, Ark, has an Elon Musk-type of hero bent on saving part of the world’s population. I need to look at that again; indeed, it is probably time to review all of McCarry. Whatever their flaws, the books go down easy.
Charles McCarry was a product of the establishment 1950s, while Brian Garfield was a child of the disgruntled 1960s. Garfield’s comic masterpiece Hopscotch trumps all of McCarry and might be the great American spy novel. I’ve read and re-read Hopscotch over a dozen times and it never fails to satisfy.
Nothing else I know by Garfield has the same power. Indeed, some of his books are quite bland and workmanlike, which is why I’ve never felt compelled to collect them all. There might be other masterpieces in the Garfield canon but I suspect most are in the middleweight class. When I was younger I enjoyed Kolchak’s Gold, an international thriller that includes a vivid first person account of the Russian Civil War. It’s better than something similarly situated by Ken Follett or Frederick Forsyth, but any given paragraph will probably lack the natural charisma of Garfield’s friends and peers Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block.
Garfield’s most famous book is Death Wish. Thanks to the Charles Bronson movie, “vigilante justice” became a rallying cry for the worst instincts of the reactionary establishment. Garfield’s follow-up, Death Sentence, attempted to tame and reframe the message of the original to no avail: The popular Bronson sequels kept the structure of the first installment.
Garfield’s output dwindled sharply after all that hullabaloo. It would be interesting to learn the whole story of Garfield’s relationship to his work and the outsized footprint left by Death Wish.
I regret that I never chased down and met James Dapogny. He was always on my list, and I once sent an email that didn’t elicit a response. Truthfully I know very little about Dapogny, never even heard him play piano, but the big book Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton: The Collected Piano Music is one of kind. The first time I looked at it I was bewildered: There was something this good about jazz in the world of the printed page? While much of DTM is partly in reaction against Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz and other heavy-handed academic jazz texts, I am not reacting against Dapogny. Dapogny is more of a father figure for this website.