Reading Matters

A secret agent in Civil War South

Christopher Dickey
Christopher Dickey

Christopher Dickey gives us one heck of a good read with “Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South” (Crown, $27), due later this month.

“Our man” is someone I’d never heard of -- Robert Bunch, a British spy dispatched to pre-Civil War Charleston by Her Majesty. He vigorously opposed slavery and sabotaged attempts to reopen the African slave trade. At the same time, in order not to be outed, he gave smiles and lip service to his secessionist neighbors in the Lowcountry.

The blog Seattle Book Mama says: “This is the most fascinating book I’ve read in a long time!”

Charleston at the brink of the war, as Dickey describes it, was the “epi-center of Southern madness,” “heat and mosquitoes reign supreme,” “...fashionables going, going, gone.’ ” He writes: “Yellow fever scares were mounting, trade was at an end; ships were no longer coming into port; a quarantine was in force but employed measures Bunch thought ‘absurd.’”

To combat the heat, Bunch worked in his office after midnight. But the mosquitoes, “knowing that my hands are occupied, have been basely pierecing my ankles and legs as high as they can get.”

Dickey grew up in Atlanta, the son of the late novelist (“Deliverance”) and poet James Dickey. Based in France, he is the foreign editor of The Daily Beast and was previously the Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor for Newsweek.

In his ackowledgments to “Our Man,” Dickey thanks friends for “helping me escape my daily routine every so often by putting me up in some lovely contemplative hideaways: John Henry Whitmire offered refuge any number of times in South Carolina, and one day in London in 2009... . Alice Cathrall offered Carol and me her warm Southern hospitality in her beautiful home in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Gina and Courtlandt Miller gave us solitude high above the sea in Cap Ferrat, and Laura Paglieri handed over the keys to her getaway apartment near Courmayeur, at the foot of Mont Blanc, where nature puts everything into perspective.”

Sounds almost too good to be true.

Dickey’s 1999 memoir about his father, “Summer of Deliverance,” is an emotionally charged account of the relationship between father and son and their eventual reconciliation. If, when you finish, you despise the elder Dickey, look up his poem, “Falling,” the fictionalized account of a stewardess who drops out of a plane over Kansas. You may not like Dickey any better. But you will come to know what a genius of a writer lived down the road from us in Columbia, S.C.

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