Writing about Reading: The Miernik Dossier

June 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

I read this book after it received high praise from Olen Steinhauer, whose spy novels I love. I did not love the Miernik Dossier, however.

The Miernik Dossier, by Charles McCarry, purports to be a collection of documents describing a “typical operation” for the CIA. The subject of this operation is Tadeusz Miernik, a Polish national who has been called back to his home country from Geneva (where he works for the WRO) and fears he will be imprisoned by the secret police if he returns. (The novel is set in the “in the middle years of the Cold War,” although no firm year is given.) He has requested his assignment with the WRO be extended, which has raised suspicions among the CIA and other intelligence agencies that Miernik is actually a Soviet spy. The novel follows the events of the investigation into Miernik and the surveillance of his activities.

Part of the reason for my dislike is the epistolary style. Granted, this is a matter of taste, but epistolary novels often fail to immerse me in the story. It is particularly distracting in the Miernik Dossier because the epistles take different forms: reports by agents, diary entries, transcripts of recorded conversations, etc.

The biggest distraction for me, however, is the incredibly large number of typographical errors throughout the book. Missing punctuation and misspelled words and character names plague the book from beginning to end. It’s so bad, I wondered if it was intentional, to give the book a sort of verisimilitude. (“Hey, real agents can’t be bothered to proofread their reports!”) If that was the intention, it was ill conceived; at best the typos were yet another distraction (and an annoying one), and at worst, they actually confused me at points and further pulled me out of the story. Writers often strive to make their novels “seamless;” the Miernik Dossier is so full of seams, it makes Frankenstein’s monster look well tailored by comparison.

And yet, I found myself compelled to keep reading to the end. I suspected at the midpoint that I knew who was whom, and I was a little disappointed in the end to find that I was right all along. I had hoped for a mind-blowing twist; what I got was a rather dull, predictable plot.

Steinhauer is not alone in his praise of the book; the cover trumpets a critic who calls it “arguably the finest modern American spy story.” Methinks this may be the only American spy story the critic has read, for certainly I can think of several better.

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