Penzler Pick, March 2002:
Robert Littell, long known as one of the best writers of fiction about the Cold War, is not as well known as John le Carré
or the great Charles McCarry
, but nevertheless has a devoted following among serious aficionados of the literary spy novel. His latest book, which runs close to 900 pages and covers the years 1950 to 1995, is an ambitious one that is destined to become the definitive novel about the CIA.
The historical events of that crucial period are well known to most of us. The end of World War II and the division of Germany into sectors by the Allies laid the groundwork for the Cold War and the rise of the OSS, a wartime branch of the American government, into one of the most powerful tools of intelligence.
The involvement of that agency in the defection of Burgess and MacLean from Britain to the Soviet Union; the Suez Canal crisis, which ended Britain's role as a superpower; the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis; the arming of rebels in Afghanistan to repel the encroaching Soviet forces; the Gulf War--all are well documented here.
All these events, which had such major consequences for our own history and that of the world, were well known to, organized by, or played out with the full cooperation of the CIA. These, as well as such minor events as defections on both sides, are the backdrop to this novel which stars a large cast of characters who we get to know as young men and women recruited while still in college. Their personal and public lives are followed as they rise through the ranks of the Company, and we know that one of them is a mole. We don't know who it is any more than the CIA does, and it will take years to unmask the traitor.
In the meantime, we have become involved not only with Littell's fictional characters, but also with some of the real people who inhabited that world: William F. Buckley Jr., G. Gordon Liddy, William Casey--and we are privy to conversations in both the Kennedy and Reagan Oval Offices.
We also know by the end of this exciting story that the fight is not always the good fight. Compromises are made, mistakes happen, and pragmatism wins out over idealism. We do not live in a perfect world, but it's the only one we have and it is that way because of the events in this book. Don't let its size deter you. This is nothing less than a stunning historical document. --Otto Penzler
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From Publishers Weekly
This impressive doorstopper of a book is like a family historical saga, except that the family is the American intelligence community. It has all the appropriate characters and tracks them over 40 years: a rogue uncle, the Sorcerer, a heavy-drinking chief of the Berlin office in the early Cold War days; a dashing hero, Jack McAuliffe, who ages gracefully and never loses his edge; a dastardly turncoat, who for the sake of the reader will not be identified here, but who dies nobly; a dark genius, the real-life James Jesus Angleton, who after the disclosure that an old buddy, British spy Kim Philby, had been a Russian agent all along, became a model of paranoia; a Russian exchange student who starts out with our heroes at Yale but then works for "the other side"; and endless assorted ladyfolk, wives, girlfriends and gutsy daughters who are not portrayed with anything like the gritty relish of the men. Littell, an old hand at the genre (he wrote the classic The Defection of A.J. Lewinter) keeps it all moving well, and there are convincing set pieces: the fall of Budapest, the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and an eerily prescient episode in Afghanistan, in which a character obviously modeled on Osama bin Laden appears, accompanied by a sidekick whose duty is to slay him instantly if his capture by the West seems imminent. It's gung-ho, hard-drinking, table-turning fun, even if a little old-fashioned now that we have so many other problems to worry about than the Russians but it brings back vividly a time when they seemed a real threat. There are some breathtaking real-life moments with the Kennedy brothers, and with a bumbling Reagan, and with Vladimir Putin, now the leader of Russia, who is here given a background that is extremely shady. (Apr.)Forecast: The Afghanistan element will lend itself to handselling, but that will be only icing on the cake of Overlook's full-tilt publicity campaign, which will include national ad/promo, a TV/radio satellite tour and an author tour. Along with Littell's reputation among critics and spy-lit cognescenti, it should all add up to a breakout book with serious bestseller potential. And Overlook's planned reprinting in hardcover of all of Littell's work, beginning with The Defection of A.J. Lewinter, should keep Littell's name in readers' minds for years to come.
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--This text refers to the