The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

WoWasis Book review: ‘Tears of Autumn’ Vietnam spy fiction by Charles McCarry

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jun• 26•13

Here at WoWasis, we love reading old books that we missed the first time around, especially when we discover something that we really shouldn’t have missed. We’ll bet you missed Charles McCarry’s thriller The Tears of Autumn (1974, ISBN 13-978-1-58567-890-7), too. That’s right, it was written in 1974, at which point many of the readers of this blog weren’t even born. The book is worth reading for its interesting supposition as to the reason behind the assassination of President Kennedy, but also for its explanation of some of the fine points of spycraft. Some very interesting elements of Vietnamese culture are thrown in as well. And the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem figures prominently in the book as well.

The author reveals fascinating information on the structure of Vietnamese familial lineage, beginning with the toc, consisting of all persons, male and female, who can claim a common ancestry five generations in the past and three generations in the future. In the mix are also chi, men in a direct line from eldest son to eldest son, and phai, men who descend from younger sons. As a result, Vietnamese families have a sense of future generations, as well as the past. McCarry’s got interesting points involving death rituals as well. There are two pages — 144 to 146 in our copy — beginning with the laying of bananas on the chest of the deceased to confuse the appetite of the Celestial Dog. 

Superior novelists fill the minds of readers with historical and cultural details particular to the lives of those involved in the story, and McCarry’s got his chops together in several different areas. Although the story is essentially about the killing of JFK, the action takes place in Vietnam, Africa, and Europe, as well as the U.S. Protagonist Paul Christopher is a recently-retired spy using the vocation of a writer as a cover. Although there are lots of deaths in the book, it surprised us that Christopher didn’t ever directly kill anyone in the book, even though he shot someone with birdshot and did a few other nasty things, like threaten to shoot a syringe full of leprosy culture into someone else. No matter, Christopher’s acquaintances manage to accomplish enough nasty stuff to keep readers wide awake. 

So why read a book based on an event that occurred 50 ago and was written 40 years ago? It’s a timelessly compelling and well-written story, bringing alive a historically important era in which a beloved president was killed and a largely unpopular war launched. The twists of plot, nefarious figures, and cultural nuances drive the action forward, and perhaps most importantly, the writer sums up all the discoveries in a tight chapter at the end of the book. This is a critical element in a book with as much going on as this one has, and is a welcome contrast to a another book we just read that left us as confused at the end as we were at the beginning. Not so here. 

This book is highly recommended for lovers of adventure, spycraft, delicious characters, and tight writing. Buy it here at the WoWasis eStore.

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