Charles McCarry, prescient spy novelist, dead at 88

Charles McCarry, an admired and prescient spy novelist who foresaw passenger jets as terrorist weapons in "The Better Angels" and devised a compelling theory for JFK's assassination in "The Tears of Autumn," has died. He was 88.

The author died Tuesday in Fairfax, Virginia, from complications from cerebral hemorrhage after a fall, according to his son, Caleb McCarry.

Charles McCarry didn't write many best-sellers, but among aficionados he was regarded as "the dean" or "poet laureate" of American spy writers and the country's answer to such British masters as John le Carre. McCarry set several of his books during the Cold War and often contrasted political idealists with those out in the field, observing in "The Better Angels" that "Evil was permanent" and that the job of intelligence was to trick it "into working for your own side." A former speechwriter, journalist and CIA operative, he drew upon his inside knowledge of power and espionage for narratives praised as eloquent and informed accounts of foreign policy and Washington intrigue.

"I was never in the bureaucracy, always in the theater," McCarry, who served in the CIA in the 1950s and '60s, told The Washington Post in 1991. "I've consciously tried not to romanticize anything, especially not intelligence work. I've always said that I've been writing a series of episodic, naturalistic novels. The people just happen to be spies, politicians, civil servants. If pediatricians lived lives in which the manipulation of emotions were the tools of the trade, I probably would have written about them."

McCarry had a knack for anticipating unthinkable headlines. In "The Better Angels," McCarry tells of a presidential campaign between liberal incumbent Bedford Forrest "Frosty" Lockwood and his right-wing rival (and former president) Franklin Mallory. The election is shadowed by Lockwood's actions toward a terrorist organization which, among other strategies, deployed suicide bombers on airplanes. The book came out in 1979, more than 20 years before the Sept. 11 attacks. His 1998 novel "Lucky Bastard," described by a New York Times reviewer as "considerably stranger than the truth," imagined the Russians helping a womanizing candidate become president.

"The Tears of Autumn," published in 1974 and one of several McCarry novels featuring the journalist-poet-spy Paul Christopher, portrayed the shooting in 1963 of President Kennedy as payback for the U.S.-backed overthrow of South Vietnamese leader President Ngo Dinh Diem three weeks earlier. McCarry had spent extensive time in Asia and Africa and originally wanted to write a nonfiction account. When his publisher pushed for a novel instead, fearing the public wouldn't accept such a scenario as factual, he needed just 60 days to complete what many rank as among the best and most unsettling novels about the assassination.

"What is so disturbing about McCarry's theory, and so unlikely to appeal to Hollywood, is that it essentially says that Kennedy's death was his own fault," Brendan Bernhard wrote in LA Weekly in 2005, when "Tears of Autumn" was reissued by Overlook Press. "It is not only wonderfully written, but as many readers have attested over the years, strangely convincing as well."

His books also included "Old Boys" and "The Last Supper," and he was at work on a new one at the time of his death, according to Otto Penzler, a publisher and family friend. He also wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, the Wall Street Journal and other publications. Like Paul Christopher, he managed to keep his intelligence background a secret while working as a journalist, even interviewing Michael Caine about playing a spy in the 1965 film "The Ipcress Files."

McCarry married Nancy Neill in 1953. They had four children.

A native of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, McCarry grew up in a household of books and as a boy loved Westerns and other adventure stories. McCarry was accepted into Harvard University but joined the Army instead, serving in Europe and writing for Stars and Stripes. After leaving the military in the early '50s, he spent a few years in Ohio as a newspaper reporter before a friend recommended him for a job working on labor speeches for the Eisenhower administration. Meanwhile, he was writing stories, some published in Collier's, and wanted to move overseas where he could live more cheaply. Eisenhower's labor secretary, James P. Mitchell, suggested he talk to CIA director Allen Dulles.

"Dulles ... seemed to want to recruit every bright young person in America, and once he had hired them, to give them every opportunity to use their brains to the utmost," McCarry wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2009.

McCarry returned to the U.S. in 1967 and began writing fulltime. His first book, "Citizen Nader," was a 1972 biography of consumer activist Ralph Nader, whom McCarry would label as "ravenous as a Nixon or a Kennedy." He was friendly with numerous Republican officials and would assist on memoirs by two former members of Ronald Reagan's cabinet: Alexander Haig and Donald Regan, the deposed chief of staff who avenged his former employers by revealing that Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer on policy decisions.

McCarry's other Paul Christopher novels included "The Miernik Dossier," ''The Secret Heart" and "The Last Supper." He continued the story of Lockwood and Mallory in the 1995 thriller "Shelley's Heart," praised by Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley as a classic about the political life of the nation's capital.

"He eschews the cheap melodrama of slick Washington fiction because he understands that the city is more complicated and elusive than that," Yardley wrote. "He loves the city's physical beauty, both natural and man-made, and notes but does not belabor the irony that it serves as backdrop to so sordid a way of life. He also knows that the business may be sordid but that all of those who engage in it are not necessarily sordid as well."