Charles McCarry was a CIA officer operating under deep cover in Europe, Asia and Africa during the Cold War. That background undoubtedly has had a profound impact on the "tradecraft" that he describes in his books. His spies move through their allotted tasks with a surety that makes the espionage aspects extremely realistic and believable. There's a lot more to THE SECRET LOVERS than the spying element however. The book heads rapidly into personal territory, taking the reader voyeuristically into the love and married life of Agent Paul Christopher. The mixture of the espionage and the personal creates quite a closed, incestuous feeling to the book - especially as the intertwining of the characters is revealed. Christopher's wife Cathy meets up with an old schoolfriend, who is now married to Otto Rothchild, master spy once, now a desperately unwell and frail man. Rothchild is an old colleague of Christopher's, and it is to him that Christopher and his boss turn when a manuscript is smuggled out of Russia. The writer of the manuscript is an old friend of Rothchild's and there is great concern for the life of the Russian writer in the event that the manuscript is published. And the links continue on - right into Cathy's family.
Paul Christopher is a dispassionate man, a good and able agent, an analytical man. A man who wrote poetry in his earlier life and is now almost embarrassed to be reminded of it. His nature, and his job, creates problems within his marriage though. As analytical, as controlled, as dispassionate as he is, Cathy is the exact opposite. His secret life leads her to create her own secret life - to take a constant stream of sex partners and lovers - to create a residence of her own. The difference is, of course, that Cathy can't keep the secret and she takes almost vicious delight in telling Christopher of her exploits - trying to excite some sort of reaction in him.
In all aspects of the story, THE SECRET LOVERS is dense, involving and slowly burns to a resolution, with some elements that were completely unexpected and some that you just dreaded coming. I love Paul Christopher as a character - whilst he's a very human and accessible central protagonist, there's also something deeply and profoundly secretive about him. The reader can sympathise with Cathy's frustration, if not empathise with her actions.
Everyone in this book is slightly damaged by the lives that they have lived, yet the book is not without resolution, or without hope, or without moments of great enjoyment. But the story is bleak, understandably and realistically part of the Cold War. The personal is often equally as bleak and complicated and fraught. If you're looking for a good, slow-burning, involving, very human espionage story, then THE SECRET LOVERS could be a book that you enjoy as much as I did.