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1930 (age 87–88)|
|Period||1961 - present|
Charles McCarry (born 1930 in Massachusetts) is an American writer, primarily of spy fiction, and a former undercover operative for the Central Intelligence Agency who The Wall Street Journal described in 2013 as the dean of American spy writers; The New Republic magazine calls him "poet laureate of the CIA."; and Otto Penzler says he has produced some "poetic masterpieces." William Zinsser calls him a "political novelist:"Jonathan Yardley, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Washington Post, calls him a "'serious' novelist" whose work may include "the best novel ever written about life in high-stakes Washington, DC." P.J. O'Rourke called him "the best modern writer on the subject of intrigue." O'Rourke learned about McCarry from a working covert operative who called McCarry "very realistic." 
- 1 Early life
- 2 Approach to writing
- 3 Career
- 4 Paul Christopher series
- 5 McCarry and the JFK assassination in real life and in his fiction
- 6 Technological and other predictions in McCarry's fiction
- 7 McCarry's descriptions of life in the pre-internet, pre-cell phone world
- 8 China as America's chief enemy
- 9 Morality (political and personal) in McCarry's fiction
- 10 Symbolism and recurrent themes
- 11 Satire
- 12 McCarry v. le Carré
- 13 How McCarry responded to the censorship of his time
- 14 Autobiographical elements in McCarry's fiction
- 15 The former spy as novelist
- 16 Adaptations in other media
- 17 Influences
- 18 Other books
- 19 References
- 20 Further reading
- 21 External links
Approach to writing
McCarry believes that "the best novels are about ordinary things: love, betrayal, death, trust, loneliness, marriage, fatherhood." He also says "if you write a political novel, you're writing what you believe instead of what you know."
McCarry says, "the themes of my novels have been ordinary things -- love, death, betrayal and the American dream."
McCarry's books are not thrillers; thrillers maintain suspense mostly by letting the reader know more than does the character being depicted; e,g, someone with a knife is waiting in the dark room. In contrast, as you read a Paul Christopher novel,you rarely see or know anything that Christopher does not see and know.
In a 1988 essay published in the Washington Post, McCarry writes, "[I]n 1973 when I turned in the manuscript of my novel The Tears of Autumn, [the publisher] summoned me to New York and, in his office high above lower Park Avenue, banged the manuscript on his desk."This book is talky, it's slow, and nobody is going to believe a goddamn word of the plot," he said. "Where's the car chase? Where's the torture scene? Where's the sex? Where's the good Russian? Do you call this a thriller?" "No," I said. He didn't hear me."
McCarry writes that: "After I resigned [from the CIA], intending to spend the rest of my life writing fiction and knowing what tricks the mind can play when the gates are thrown wide open, as they are by the act of writing, between the imagination and that part of the brain in which information is stored, I took the precaution of writing a closely remembered narrative of my clandestine experiences. After correcting the manuscript, I burned it. What I kept for my own use was the atmosphere of secret life: How it worked on the five senses and what it did to the heart and mind. All the rest went up in flames, setting me free henceforth to make it all up. In all important matters, such as the creation of characters and the invention of plots, with rare and minor exceptions, that is what I have done. And, as might be expected, when I have been weak enough to use something that really happened as an episode in a novel, it is that piece of scrap, buried in a landfill of the imaginary, readers invariably refuse to believe."
Throughout McCarry's fiction are statements and descriptions such as "the average intelligence officer is a sort of latter-day Marcel Proust. He lies abed in a cork-lined room, hoping to profit by secrets that other people slip under the door."
Snippets from McCarry's CIA years can be found in his non-fiction writing for newspapers. For example,"In the early days of the cold war, a colleague of mine who had worked his way through college playing the saxophone was recruited by a certain United States intelligence agency. For his first assignment, he was posted to Cambodia and told to find an apartment near the royal palace, open the windows at night, and play “Muskrat Ramble.” Prince Sihanouk, the eccentric ruler of the country, was reputed to be an amateur musician who loved jazz and had his own band. Who knew but what he might hear that plaintive sax in the jungle night and invite the nice young American to come on over and sit in?"
A critic for Tin House magazine approaches McCarry through what the critic calls "the art of the sentence," citing as an example a description in the opening pages of McCarry's The Secret Lovers: “The sun shone feebly through the overcast, like a lamp covered by a woman’s scarf in a shabby hotel room.”
A recurrent statement found in McCarry's non-fiction writing is that events in real life are so strange that if presented as fiction no one would believe them.
McCarry's novels were all republished in 2005—which means major critics revisited his work—some of which was more than a third-of-a-century old Rereading The Tears of Autumn one critic called it "a perfect spy novel."
Military, U.S. presidential speechwriter, CIA
McCarry began his writing career in the United States Army as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes, afterwards, in the 1950s, serving as a speechwriter in the early Administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower; a typical McCarry item was the 1953 Labor Day Proclamation, which read, in part, "Free American labor has won for itself the enjoyment of a standard of living unmatched in history. The contemporary world knows no comparison with it. There is only brutal contrast to it. To this, there is no more pitiful and dramatic testimony than the food which this free people has been able to send to feed hundreds of thousands suffering the peculiar torments of the proletarian paradise of Eastern Germany." In the late 1950s, he accepted a post with the CIA for whom he traveled the globe as a deep cover operative—his son, Nathan McCarry, CEO of Pluribus International Corporation, in 2014 described his father's work for the CIA as "trying for the family." He left the CIA, in 1967, becoming a writer of spy novels McCarry rarely speaks or writes directly about those years, saying simply, "For a decade at the height of the Cold War, I worked abroad under cover as an intelligence agent."
As an editor and writer
McCarry was editor-at-large for National Geographic and has contributed pieces to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the "Saturday Evening Post," and other national publications.
In as essay published by the Washington Post, he says that "for a writer in America, going out to dinner is like living as an American in Europe: Total strangers think they can say anything they like to you."
As commentator and book reviewer
- "Star Wars’ and the Soviet Collapse," Wall Street Journal, November 6, 2011.
Paul Christopher series
Ten of McCarry's novels involve the life story of a fictional character named Paul Christopher, who—in McCarry's telling—grew up in pre-Nazi Germany, and later became a lone operative for a U.S. government entity that is clearly the Central Intelligence Agency.
These books, in order of publication, are:
- The Miernik Dossier (1973), Christopher investigates a possible Soviet spy in Geneva
- The Tears of Autumn (1974), Christopher investigates the Kennedy Assassination
- The Secret Lovers (1977), Christopher discovers a secret plot within the CIA
- The Better Angels (1979), Christopher's cousins steal a Presidential election
- The Last Supper (1983), introduction to Christopher's parents in pre-World War II Germany; Christopher is imprisoned in China
- The Bride of the Wilderness (1988), historical novel concerning 17th-century Christopher ancestors
- Second Sight (1991), released from a Chinese prison, Christopher meets a daughter he did not know he had
- Shelley's Heart (1995), sequel to The Better Angels: Christopher's cousins cause a Presidential impeachment
- Old Boys (2004), Christopher's old associates discover a plot involving terrorists and the fate of Christopher's mother
- Christopher's Ghosts (2007), the story of Christopher's first love in pre-World War II Germany
The novels, in chronological order of events depicted:
- Bride of the Wilderness (Christopher is a peripheral character)
- Christopher's Ghosts
- The Miernik Dossier
- Secret Lovers
- The Tears of Autumn
- Second Sight (Christopher is a peripheral character)
- Old Boys (Christopher is a peripheral character)
The Paul Christopher novels, together and separately, resemble a Christopher Nolan movie in that time sequences become jumbled; e.g. only as Paul Christopher becomes an old man do readers learn about his parents and childhood.
"It’s tempting to say that Charles McCarry’sThe Tears of Autumn is the greatest espionage novel ever written by an American, if only because it’s hard to conceive of one that could possibly be better. But since no one can claim to have read every America espionage novel ever written, let’s just say that The Tears of Autumn is a perfect spy novel, and that its hero, Paul Christopher, should by all rights be known the world over as the thinking man’s James Bond — and woman’s too."—Brendan Bernard, "The Great American Spy Novel," March 31, 2005', LA Weekly
"Old Boys is a large yarn that will make yummy reading between long looks at Nantucket Sound this summer. (And a boffo movie in the right hands.) But it is a tale that travels from the outlandish to the absurd. As long as readers don't expect the taut realism we have come to expect from the man, they'll be fine. If they're looking for vintage McCarry, though, this will produce unhappy campers. The book does not approach his better grownup fiction. It is not in the same league, for example, with The Miernik Dossier, the small gem that made McCarry's career. Rather, it is something of a "Treasure Island" for lovers of spook fiction, a near-juvenile adventure that entrances adults who know better with fabulous writing. What they do get is a fleeting reprise of McCarry's great creation, Paul Christopher. Christopher, the spy whom many first met in McCarry's bestseller The Tears of Autumn, is now an opaque older man and an ascetic survivor of a Chinese prison camp."--Sam Allis, "McCarry's thriller 'Old Boys' is a trip past believable," Boston Globe, July 26, 2004.
McCarry and the JFK assassination in real life and in his fiction
--"...the most credible account of President Kennedy’s assassination. You will believe it’s what really happened."--New York magazine on Tears of Autumn—In Lucky Bastards, JFK seems to have an illegitimate son. In real life, no such person is known to exist.
--In Tears, Paul Christopher wakes up ten days after the JFK killing and intuitively and instantly knows "who had arranged the death of the President"—the family and followers of recently assassination South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem and his two brothers. In real life, the wife of one of Diem's murdered brothers attracted media attention for predicting the JFK assassination ("Anything that happens in Vietnam will find its equivalent in the United States"), and later telling reporters that JFK had got what he deserved.—JFK is the only real-life President mentioned by name in a McCarry novel.
McCarry's fiction: Insights into the CIA
- In The Better Angels (1979) and its sequel, Shelley's Heart (1995), McCarry imagines a Washington, D.C. in which the CIA has been disbanded "after it collapsed under the weight of the failures and scandals resulting from its misuse by twentieth century Presidents," and has been replaced by a FIS (Foreign Intelligence Service).
- The New York Times: "As usual, Mr. McCarry displays the inside scraps of knowledge he has picked up presumably from working in the C.I.A. and writing memoirs with the likes of the former Secretary of State Alexander Haig and the former Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan. How else could he come up with such fables and facts as a Lubyanka breakfast being a cigarette and a bullet?"
Torture and assassination--and the Rule of Law
- "There was a belief in the profession that a man who had been tortured, and stood up under it, could not afterward be trusted. He would know too well what to expect."--The Tears of Autumn
- Torture only elicits lies the torturer "wants to believe."--The Mulberry Bush (2015), p. 78.
Training of CIA "Singleton" agents
- Described in Mulberry Bush and The Shanghai Factor
Can and Should Journalists Serve as CIA Operatives?
- In Tears of Autumn. Paul Christopher tells people he is asking questions for a magazine article even though he is reporting his findings to the CIA. Such use of journalism as a CIA cover story was one of the practices that attracts much attention in the 1970s; see, for example, the Church Committee.
Technological and other predictions in McCarry's fiction
—Computer algorithms that analyses media content and specify—with accuracy—when a physical war between two countries will break out. The Better Angels, 1979.—Terrorist suicide bombers appear in Better Angels (1979); the New York Times first reported this form of terrorism in 1983, when describing the Lebanese civil war. Suicide terrorists use fully loaded passenger planes as weapons in Better Angels—which did not occur in real life until September 11, 2001.
--Suicide bombers begin to blow themselves up at American iconic sites like the Alamo. The Lincoln Memorial and Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol soon follow,.—On June 10. 2004, the Wall Street Journal published a review entitled, "He Has Seen The Future: It's in His Work; Charles McCarry's novels keep coming true. And his new book is about the end of the world."—Someone who thinks he is JFK's "love child" becomes President of the U.S..--Lucky Bastard
--ARK (2004) has people equipped with "artificial hornets as their primary defensive weapon;" as of 2017, experts discuss the impending possibility of "drones the size of bumblebees that could be programmed to kill certain people, or certain categories of people, by grabbing their skulls with tiny metal talons and drilling into their head."—Worsening and more frequent earthquakes and severe storms like hurricanes threaten society in Ark.
--Soviet KGB has long-term operative control over a person who becomes President of the U.S.-- Lucky Bastard—A thirty-person expedition (15 men and 15 women) lands on Ganymede, one of Jupiter's moons--The Better Angels, p. 164.
McCarry's descriptions of life in the pre-internet, pre-cell phone world
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China as America's chief enemy
After the collapse of the USSR, McCarry turned to China in The Shanghai Factor, Old Boys, Second Sight and Last Supper.
Morality (political and personal) in McCarry's fiction
—Jacob Heilbrunn writes in the N.Y. Times (2006): "McCarry never succumbs to a bogus moral equivalence in which Western operatives are as nefarious as their Communist counterparts. He instructs us that the real problem is not so much moral quicksand as incompetent scheming. At a moment when the C.I.A.'s travails are evoking nostalgia for a golden age when it supposedly operated effectively, McCarry offers a useful reminder that such an era never existed."
--"The truth, once discovered, is of no use: people deny what they have done, forget what they had believed, and make the same mistakes over and over again."—Paul Christopher is eating dinner with a beautiful young woman in wartime Saigon. They discuss the morality of killing. "So you believe in nothing," she says to him. "I believe in consequences," he responds.--Tears of Autumn
--"You think the truth will make men free. But it only makes them angry."--Tears of Autumn.
Symbolism and recurrent themes
- Snakes appear often in McCarry's work; in Tears of Autumn, feeding a pet python bought in Cambodia reveals the character is his CIA colleague Wolkowitz who is stationed in Saigon; likewise, many scenes set in Africa involve mambas, known as a "one-step" snake—if you are bitten, you take one step and die. Sometimes mambas appear on their own; other times they are weaponized, released at key moments in select places to kill or terrorize people. In the nonfiction Inner Circles, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers hang "one step" snakes from the ceilings of their tunnels to kill American GI "tunnel rats" who crawl in; to McCarry, these tunnel rats seem to epitomize courage.
- In' Shelley's Heart, published in 1995 and set about ten years in the future, "among militant feminists the surname Eve had lately come into fashion as an alternative to what they termed the 'chattel names' that had been imposed on them by the males who had impregnated their female ancestors."
- A close aide to President John F. Kennedy praises him for "grabbing his putter" in the Oval Office, "lining up a shot and tapping it across the rug" as he makes a difficult decision. Adds the aide, "we all suddenly saw the golf ball as the symbol of the fate of the nation."--The Tears of Autumn
McCarry v. le Carré
- According to David Ignatius, John le Carré does not like American intelligence officers, and is often “heavy-handed” in depicting them; McCarry treats all intelligence professionals, even from small countries like South Vietnam, as equals in professionalism. But not as morally equivalent: P.J. O'Rourke wrote that "unlike John LeCarré, Charles McCarry knows right from wrong. His theme is never that the other side is just like our side except on the other side." P.J. O'Rourke, "No Country for Old Men," The Weekly Standard,September 13, 2004.
- Unlike le Carré's work, which focuses on the Cold War and post-Cold War time periods, McCarry explores pre-independence America (Bride of the Wilderness) and has several works set in the near future (e.g. ''Shelley's Heart'')--and one that could qualify as science fiction (Ark).
- McCarry is compared to le Carré, but le Carré never seems to be compared to McCarry.
- McCarry's fiction started to be published in the 1970s after he had left the CIA; publication of le Carré's work began in the early 1960s, while he still worked for British intelligence.
- Both seem to abhor torture (le Carré: "The tortured are a class apart. You can imagine--just--where they've been but never what they's brought back."
How McCarry responded to the censorship of his time
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Autobiographical elements in McCarry's fiction
How an aging McCarry depicts aging in his fiction
The former spy as novelist
The novelist Alan Furst has written in The Book of Spies that "[Graham] Greene, [John] le Carré, [Somerset] Maugham, and McCarry write with a kind of cloaked anger, a belief that the world is a place where political power is maintained by treachery and betrayal..." In its subtitle, Furst's book calls such writing "literary espionage."
- "His flight was called over the loudspeaker in Thai; he waited for the English announcement...so no one watching him should guess he knew the local language."--The Tears of Autumn, 1974.
- "Good intelligence officers...knew how to form friendships and use friends"—at addition, "no human action surprised [them] or touched their emotions."
- "In those days, more than half a century ago, when an American was a rare bird along the Guinea coast, you got to know everyone in your hotel bar pretty quickly."--The End of the String, 2011.
Predicting the near-term future
McCarry on being alone
- "Paul Christopher had been loved by two women who could not understand why he had stopped writing poetry." The Tears of Autumn
- "Solitude and time-wasting did not bother me; I was used to both; both were occupational hazards."
- "In time, I supposed, I would get used to laughing alone."—Last line of The Mulberry Bush (2015)
- McCarry's heroes often love women who are forever unattainable (Christopher's Ghosts) or more committed to ideology and than to romantic love (Mulberry Bush).
- The fundamental concept in McCarry's fiction is that every human being is alone.
Adaptations in other media
Paul Christopher, J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield, and J. P. Donleavy's Sebastion Dangerfield in The Ginger Man (1955) are among the post-World War II literary heroes who have stymied Hollywood efforts to depict them.
McCarry is an admirer of the work of W. Somerset Maugham, especially the Ashenden stories. He was also an admirer of Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate (1959), Prizzi's Honor (1982), and numerous other novels.
Non-Paul Christopher novels
- Lucky Bastard (1999). A comic novel in which a likable but amoral, devious, and oversexed politician (meant to evoke Bill Clinton) is controlled by a female eastern-bloc subversive.
- Ark (2011). Earth's wealthiest man attempts to save humanity from a coming apocalypse.
- The Shanghai Factor (2013). A rookie spy in China is drawn into the lonely, compartmentalized world of counterintelligence, and misunderstands everything that he and those around him are doing.
- The Mulberry Bush (2015) explores the world of South America's elites and militant revolutionaries, and the role of lifelong personal passions and agendas in their work and that of intelligence operatives.
- Citizen Nader (1972)
- Double Eagle: Ben Abruzzo, Maxie Anderson, Larry Newman (1979)
- The Great Southwest (1980)
- Isles of the Caribbean (National Geographic Society, Washington, DC, 1980, co-author)
- For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington (1988, by Donald Regan with Charles McCarry)
- Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel (1989, with Isabel Allende, Marge Piercy, Robert Stone and Gore Vidal)
- Inner Circles: How America Changed the World: a Memoir (1992, by Alexander Haig with Charles McCarry)
- Caveat: Realism, Reagan, and Foreign Policy (1984, by Alexander Haig with Charles McCarry)
--Stories include: In March 1981, shortly after taking office, Ronald Reagan was shot; Secretary of State Haig appeared in the White House press room and announced, "I am in charge here!"
- From the Field: A Collection of Writings from National Geographic (1997, editor)
Collections that include McCarry's work
Harlan Coben, ed. The Best American Mystery Stories: 2011, includes "The End of the String."
Alan Furst, ed. The Book of Spies,includes excerpt from The Tears of Autumn.
Otto Penzler, ed. Agents of Treachery, includes "The End of the Sting."
The 50 Greatest Mysteries of All Time, "The Hand of Carlos"
Short stories (fiction)
- "The Saint Who Said No," Saturday Evening Post, December 9, 1961
- "The Hand of Carlos," Armchair Detective
Magazine articles (non-fiction)
- "A ... Week on the Road With Ralph Nader," Life magazine, January 21, 1972
- Trachtenberg, Jeffrey (May 9, 2013). "An Ex-CIA Agent's Novel Take on Spying in China". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved June 7, 2017.
- August 4, 1979, pp. 42–43.
- Agents of Change, p. xiii.
- Zinsser, William, "Paths of Resistance: the Art and Craft of the Political Novel," 1989.
- "The Powers that Be," Washington Post, June 4, 1995.
- P.J. O'Rourke, "No Country for Old Men," The Weekly Standard,September 13, 2004.
- Birnbaum, Robert (2004). "Interview: Birnbaum v. Charles McCarry". The Morning News. Retrieved June 9, 2010.
- McCarry, Charles, "A Strip of Exposed Film, " in ='Paths of Resistance, p. 69.
- McCarry, Charles, "How to Write Spy Novels; the Best Books are Collaborations Between the Writer and Reader," June 19, 1988.
- McCarry, Charles, "Between the Real and the Believable," Washington Post, December 11, 1994.
- McCarry, Charles, "The End of the String," a short story published in Agents of Change, 2010, p. 7.
- McCarry, Charles, "Under Cover of Ineptitude", The New York Times, July 10, 2010.
- McCarry was born in 1930, and The Mierick Dossier came out in 1973.
- Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises was published in 1926 when he was 27; and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead was published in 1948, when Mailer was 25.
- "The Art of the Sentence," Tin House', January 8, 2013.
- e.g."Under Cover of Ineptitude," NYT, July 10, 2010.
- "Passing the Test of Time (washingtonpost.com)". www.washingtonpost.com.
- Bernhard, Brendan (March 31, 2005). "The Great American Spy Novel".
- Agents of Treachery, pp. xii-xiii
- Labor Day Statement by the President, September 7, 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower Papers
- Agents of Treachery, p. xii.
- "Nathan McCarry, Founder, President & CEO at Pluribus International". Executive Leaders Radio. executiveleadersradio.com. March 13, 2014. Retrieved June 7, 2017.
- "Authors: Charles McCarry". Mysterious Press. mysteriouspress.com. Retrieved June 7, 2017.
- Washington Post, December 11, 1994.
- December 11, 1994.
- "Paul Christopher Series by Charles McCarry". www.goodreads.com.
- "McCarry's thriller 'Old Boys' is a trip past believable - The Boston Globe". archive.boston.com.
- "If You Liked My Book, You'll Love These". NYMag.com.
- p. 100.
- p. 51.
- NYT, "Mrs. Nhu Recalls Saigon Coup In a Message to Mrs. Kennedy," November 25, 1963.
- Shelley's Heart, p. 16.
- Christopher Lehman-Haupt, "Weaseling a Mole Into the White House", July 13, 1998.
- p. 200.
- p. 284
- Thomas Friedman, "Marines Seemingly Did Little to Deter a Car Bomb Attack," The New York Times, October 25, 1983.
- The Better Angeles, p. 299.
- Better Angeles, p. 334.
- By Brian Carney, the deputy editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe
- See LIFE 3.0 (2017) by MIT physicist Max Tagmark, co-founder of MIT's Future of Life Institute.
- "Old-Fashioned Espionage," April 2, 2006
- From Tears of Autumn with a few word changes, e.g. "men" to "people."
- p. 126.
- p. 73.
- Inner Circles, p. xxx.
- p. 125.
- p. 71.
- David Igantius, "Le Carre goes Back into the Cold", The Atlantic, September 2017.
- see The Secret Lovers and Tears of Autumn
- "The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry". www.groveatlantic.com.
- Patrick Anderson, "The Spymaster Adds to his rich legacy", Washington Post, September 2, 2017.
- A Legacy of Spies, 2017.
- Alan Furst, The Book of Spies, 2003, p. ix.
- p. 131.
- The Tears of Autumn, p. 34.
- In Harlan Coben, The Best American Mystery Stories.
- The End of the String
- "Wrong Is Right". 14 May 1982 – via www.imdb.com.
- see "J.P. Donnelley, 91, Author Who Stirred Controversy With 'Ginger Man,' Dies," The New York Times, September 14, 2017.
- Kakutani, Michiko (January 12, 1999). "The Modern Political Novel as a Mirror of the Bizarre". New York Times. Retrieved 15 June 2018.
- "The Shanghai Factor". Grove Atlantic.
- pp. 141–166.
- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- N.Y: The Modern Library, 2003.
- Fall 1992.
- "The Great American Spy Novel". L.A. Weekly.
- "Audio interview with Charles McCarry". National Review. Archived from the original on 2012-05-05.
- O'Rourke, P. J. "A review essay". Weekly Standard.
- Snyder, Robert Lance. "Charles McCarry's Recursive Late Fiction." Clues: A Journal of Detection 36.2 (Fall 2018): 71-81.