Archive for February 24, 2012

This is the second Charles McCarry book I have read recently as part of my personal 2012 Spy Story Reading Challenge. [see The Tears of Autumn and The Third Monday in February]

The Better Angels was first published in 1979, and the main action is set in an election year towards the end of the century in a deeply polarized America. Well he got that one right for sure. On the cover it is billed as a Paul Christopher novel, but he never appears, and the plot involves Christopher’s powerful cousins, Horace and Julian Hubbard, the TV journalist Patrick Graham and their beautiful talented women, Charlotte, Caroline and Emily. It is a book that doesn’t quite know whether it is a spy story, an alternative history, a political thriller or a diatribe against political and media elites from both ends of the spectrum. Or all those things. I found it a fascinating read, although I was not able to bring myself to like any of the self absorbed wealthy bed hopping characters; people who once had ideals and now had  a lifestyle.

She was wearing scent and a linen suit, with pearls at her throat. A red fox fur jacket lay beside her on the banquette. Despite her years of political rage, her face was still the untouched face of a young girl. When last Julian had seen her, she had talked in Movement argot: now she had her own dear accent back. She introduced the man with her. He wore a cashmere blazer and a shirt with an open collar, and a gold chain around his neck. His hair had been styled and it lay on his skull like a peruke. It was Patrick Graham.

McCarry  looking ahead over almost two decades, prophesies many things right and many things wrong. The Republican Party has ceased to exist in the book having been replaced by something even further to the right! In the book the Soviet Union still exists but plays no part in the narrative. In McCarry’s alternative future Britain exports Old Etonians to act as servants to the American wealthy, while in our reality Old Etonians like Damien Lewis [homeland and Band of Brothers] and Dominic West [The Wire] star in US TV shows. 

McCarry’s election will be fought by former President Franklin Douglass Mallory, and the liberal current President Bedford Forrest Lockwood.  McCarry was obviously being playful when he named a caring ultra liberal President from Kentucky, after Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forest. Lockwood is surrounded by admirers, who believe, and are prepared to do anything to ensure his re-election. Not surprising when we learn about his opponent Mallory.

“Of course. I wouldn’t say Mallory was like Hitler.”

“Wouldn’t you? Both created a mythical monster-Hitler the Jews. Mallory the humanitarians-‘humantitarians’ means Lockwood and you, Emily and me, but it also means the blacks and the poor. Hitler gassed defectives; Mallory passed a law to have anyone whose IQ falls below a certain norm sterilized on the birth of their first child. Hitler made a frontal attack on religion; Mallory tells us we must be ‘rational’….”

Mallory lost the previous election only because he was involved in a plot that would cause Canada’s Western provinces to secede and join the USA, and while predictions such as Mallory sending an expedition to Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, in the last year of his administration, that arrives there during his nominating convention, seem ridiculous others are frightening prophetic. Lockwood, the liberal humanitarian, approving of the assassination of a charismatic but insane Arab sheikh, because he was going to give nuclear suitcase bombs to a terrorist group, and then the FIS [Foreign Intelligence Service successor to the CIA] not being able to locate these weapons of mass destruction in the desert. The use of suicide bombers to blow up passenger filled jet planes,  a bombing campaign to influence an election, an international bank used as a front for espionage, and the stealing of an election using computers all are predicted in this narrative.  And one frightening prophecy concerns unemployment.

“Who are Mallory’s people? First of all, the colossal rich, men like O.N.Laster of Universal Energy, but he keeps them well hidden. They only come out in the night when he tries to steal Canada.

Second, the educated disgruntled. We have two million men and women under thirty five in this country who have advanced academic degrees and can’t get jobs.” 

There is something interesting, and quotable, on virtually everyone of the 350 pages, and I shall probably dip back into it from time to time over the real US election campaign. 

Bedford Forrest Lockwood, the President of the United States-his administration had drawn a great troop of young idealists to Washington. Patrick had called them the largest influx of intelligent reformers to come into the capital since the New Deal.