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The Amateur Hardcover – Bargain Price, November 10, 2003
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Never having heard of the author or his other books, this is the first book I've bought solely on the strength of Amazon's "Recommended for" list. I'm disappointed both by the book itself and by Amazon's flawed ability to suggest books. To be fair, The Amateur has all the elements of thrillers I enjoy: foreign travel, word play, conspiracy theory, a parallel body of knowledge about which the reader can learn while following the main plot. But it's dull. The lines set up to sound world-weary or self-deprecating sound simply smug, depressingly self-satisfied. Heller, the main character, has all the quirky tics of a Spenser or a Reacher, but none of the depth. (Yes, even Parker's Spenser has depth compared to the hero of Littell's yarn.) It' s as though Littell can't be bothered with back-story or background, trying instead to telegraph the results of a life experience with references to "his Mona Lisa smile" and the begging, sniffing, and returning of cigarettes.
Best line: a remembered message home from young Heller miserable at summer camp: "everyone here goes around in twos; I go around in ones."
We do get a brief glimpse into the bizarre, self- aggrandizing, vanity press micro-world of "Shakespeare didn't write those plays." But the self-absorbed and classist men (only men, of course) who burrow away to prove that no one without a title could have produced Shakespeare's canon are ultimately as boring as the rest of the book.
Littell writes good minor characters - Mr Diamond, Uncle Ludvic -- but one can't help wondering if that's because he doesn't need to sustain them. Elizabeth is his best character, the only woman who gets more than a line or two. Toward the end, however, she becomes yet another superficial cipher in the service of Heller's revenge saga.
As for the plot, Littell may deserve a prize for the most sustained series of coincidences in a spy novel. There's virtually nothing else moving things forward -- certainly not the dialogue, which is both tedious and brief.
Over-all judgment? Big yawn. Spend your money on Daniel Silva - great writing, compelling characters, complex plots leading to the heart of varied darknesses and back again.
This is all the more a shame that The Amateur might have been a nice little one to bring back Cold War thrills. The overall plot, the premise at least, is good: in the 1970s, a disgruntled CIA agent elopes into Czechoslovakia on a hunt for his fiancée's killer, pursued both by the communists and his own, erstwhile employers. Littell does seem to have done some research into encoding, even if his portrayal of the CIA's inner workings is on the cute, stereotypical side. And the story moves along and more or less holds together, except perhaps for the questionable denouement. But poor execution ensures the book does note quite make its mark. I managed to enjoy The Amateur because I once lived in Prague and found the odd nostalgic whiff, but this is otherwise a two-star rather than a three-star review.
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I've read it twice.