Thursday, October 18, 2007

Charles McCarry's The Tears of Autumn

I'm reading Charles McCarry's great spy novel The Tears of Autumn. His books were out of print for a while, but they've been brought back by Overlook Press.

I wrote about McCarry's recent spy novel, Old Boys about 15 months ago (read it here) and his first one from 1972, The Miernik Dossier, about a year ago (read that here).

The Tears of Autumn is a book that some have called one of the best spy novels ever written. Brendan Bernhard (no big name, I'll grant you) wrote in L.A. Weekly a couple of years ago that "The 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."

Bernhard at least has the distinction of having interviewed the McCarry, and McCarry has the distinction of having been a CIA agent himself. As with agent Paul Christopher in the book, we learn from Bernhard's interview, McCarry heard that Kennedy had been killed "from a Belgian priest at the airport in Léopoldville, now Kinshasa, the capital of what was then the Belgian Congo." The book is said to solve the Kennedy assassination; I haven't gotten that far, though I can see that it ties in with the assassination of South Vietnam's president Ngo Dinh Diem. That happened just three weeks before the Kennedy assassination.

Half-way through the book, in a scene in Vietnam after both presidents' assassinations, an agent takes off his jacket in the comfort of another's heavily-fortified Saigon flat. He sees our hero, agent Paul Christopher, looking at his gun and shoulder holster. "Station regulations, we never go out without a gat," he says. That made me pause. We never go out without a gat. I had always associated the word "gat," slang for handgun, with a more recent, urban and hip hop source. Where does it come from?

Merriam-Webster says it's short for Gatling gun, dating back to 1897. Below that entry, it says it's slang for handgun. It's that definition that I'm more interested in.

The not-so-reliable Wikipedia-style Urban Dictionary has 61 contributed definitions, many of them arguing for an etymology based in the prohibition with Tommy or Thompson submachine guns. A couple mention the Gatling gun. An edition of Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary from 1963 -- the year the action in Tears of Autumn takes place -- lists the word as:
gat n [short for Gatling gun] slang : PISTOL
The Online Etymology Dictionary says:
"pistol," 1904, slang shortening of Gatling (gun); by 1880, gatlin was slang for a gun of any sort.
The Gatling gun was a machine gun created by American inventor Richard J. Gatling in 1862, in time for use in the Civil War. From that point on it was constantly being improved upon, and in 1874, the Gatling company partnered with Colt. The companies merged shortly after that.

The Gatling gun used six hand-cranked rotating barrels to fire more rounds faster. Some accounts say that Gatling thought his weapon was more humane because it was more lethal, making smaller armies more effective.

[photograph of a British model of an 1865 Gatling gun from Max Smith, here.]

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