I enjoy Charles McCarry’s Paul Christopher series, a great blend of espionage intrigue and commentary on American foreign affairs. Many consider The Last Supper to be his magnum opus. While I enjoyed parts of the book, I will not be one of those people.
The Last Supper is not a conventional Christopher novel in that there’s a case and he’s working it. Instead, it’s kind of a biographical work that traces his father’s life and his own. Throughout it are multiple espionage cases handled by the OSS and CIA respectively that lead up to the book’s big reveal about Christopher, Christopher’s father and the motivations of the people in Christoper’s life. So it’s more of a collection of short stories with a narrative spine.
Some of these work better than others. There are parts of the book that are richly described, like Christopher’s father’s prewar romance in Germany and Christopher’s time in southeast Asia. And there are other parts that are clumsy and unrealized. McCarry is really good at focusing on one case for one novel but not as good at creating the sweeping epic he wants this to be. I get the sense the cases here were story ideas that didn’t have the legs for a 250+ page book, so they found their way here.
The machinations surrounding Christopher are, as I read it, transparently obvious. The revelation of motive near the end didn’t do enough to satisfy me, although the title is appropriate and the inspired scene one of the better parts of the novel.
Also, this didn’t necessarily dock the book a star for me as I know from previous works McCarry’s politics lean conservative but the dude really does not like liberals, especially liberal journalists. McCarry is good at sensory detail and he uses that ability to make sure you know the Big Bad Pinko Writer is somewhat effeminate. Not a good look.
And then, there’s Christopher himself. My love of Ross Macdonald’s Archer series is well known and one of the reasons why I love it (and the Christopher series) is while we’re in Archer’s head the whole time, we’re never really in Archer’s heart. The reader sees him working on a case and understands his motivations but knows little of his back story or what makes him so empathetic. I thought it would be neat to dive into Paul Christopher’s back story but really, less is more with him. McCarry just doesn’t have anything interesting to say to this. Christopher winds up being a carbon copy of his father: handsome, polyglot Gary Sues who do more listening than talking and who people are inexplicably drawn to.
I may be being a little too hard on this book. The espionage stuff is fun and even while having a good idea where it was going, I was hanging on the edge of my seat at the end. Still, I wasn’t as impressed as I should have been for what this book was trying to do.