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The Defection of A. J. Lewinter: A Novel of Duplicity Hardcover – October 10, 2002

3.8 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The reissue of this 1973 Cold War gem comes on the heels of Littell's recent hardcover thriller The Company. Set in the early 1970s, the spy thriller-cum-black comedy begins when A.J. Lewinter, an eccentric American engineer specializing in nose cones for ballistic missiles, decides to defect to the Soviet Union. Such a high-level defection is unprecedented, and each side suspects the other of something fishy. A hilarious contest ensues as they try to outconnive each other. On the American side is a coldly libidinous intelligence agent named Diamond (when a mistress asks him what he would have done if she hadn't passed a security background check, he says, "I would have taken you to bed-but I wouldn't have talked to you"). His KGB analogue is the nervous Pogodin (self-described as "one-quarter Marxist, one-quarter humanist, and one-half bureaucrat"), who knows too well the consequences of any mistake. The book paints a bleak view of both sides of the Cold War divide: the socialist dream has given way to a police state plagued by chronic food shortages and ruled by an elite oligarchy that gets the few decent cars and apartments in Moscow, while on democracy's home front, race riots and antiwar protests multiply. Concise, smart and funny, this novel turns Cold War spy cliches on their head. Though the ambiguous ending no longer terrifies, this book still packs a punch and seems prescient to boot. Those who only know Littell's more recent works should enjoy this fast, fun trip into the past.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Review

"A brilliantly clever story, emphasizing the nuances of absurdity, menace, and violence inherent in security operations...lively, energetic, easy to read." -- Julian Symonds, The Independent

"Littell deserves his comparisons with Deighton and LeCarré." -- The Times, London

"Robert Littell writes smart, sharp thrillers. The Once and Future Spy may be his smartest and sharpest to date...What raises this book above Littell's excellent average is its range of marvelous characters...Plots as feline and style as dashing as Littell's are rare in the spy genre." -- The Observer, London

"The Once and Future Spy is, if anything, even better than Robert Littell's previous thrillers. It is intriguing, funny, quirky, challenging, and above all, diverting. Get it and read it." -- Robert Elegant
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: The Overlook Press; Reissue edition (November 15, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1585673471
  • ISBN-13: 978-1585673476
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #828,502 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on December 28, 2003
Format: Paperback
Having read and thoroughly enjoyed The Company; I decided to give this one a shot. Littell does not disappoint as he weaves layer upon layer of intrigue in this brief tale of espionage. The story involves the defection of a scientist and what we learn about him through the eyes of oppossing agencies. Yet through the deft touch of Littell we are never quite sure what to think of the man. Is he serving the interests of the United States, the Soviet Union, or himself? Are there any hints that let on? That is the charm of this novel. The tone of the novel fits right alongside that of The Company. Especially appreciated is the fact that Littell leaves the road open for the reader to navigate the end course. He doesn't spoon feed conclusions to his readers. You'll see what I mean when you read the fantastic ending.
The only problem? This was the only other book of his that I could find at my local store.
why not five stars? I wished that it was a longer read...
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Format: Paperback
It's hard to believe that "The Defection of A.J. Lewinter" is a first novel. Sure, it's brief (barely 300 pages, using a large typeface), but it's so self-assured, so brilliant, so audacious, that it smacks of a later work written by a giant who's merely taking some time off from writing epics.

The title is seemingly dead-on. American scientist A.J. Lewinter defects to the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. (While the time period is never specifically stated, it's definitely post-Kennedy and pre-Gorbachev.) The defection is surprisingly easy, and Lewinter has an easier time ditching his American security than he does convincing the Soviets to let him defect.

And that's the crux of Littell's lean novel of espionage and paranoia. The Americans are understandably paranoid -- they've got a defector, which is embarrassing enough, but this guy may know some military secrets of considerable value. But the Soviets are equally paranoid, if not more so. What if this Lewinter is a CIA plant, and this is a phony defection? If the Soviets misread Lewinter, it could mean a disastrous hit to the Soviet system of 5-year plans, not to mention a few bullets put into the backs of a few heads.

Littell keeps the pressure on, as the Americans and the Soviets plot and scheme to figure out just what the heck has happened by this defection as well as how to play it. For the Soviets, will the Americans use reverse-psychology and act like the defection is no big deal (thereby hopefully leading the Soviets to conclude that Lewinter is a fraud)? Or are the Americans playing reverse-reverse psychology, hoping that by doing nothing the Soviets will interpret this as the Americans trying to convince the Soviets that Lewinter is a fraud, when really Lewinter is the real thing?
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Format: Hardcover
Littell's book reads as well today as it did when published. This is an excellent introduction to the cold war science of defector exploitation told from both the US and Soviet view. This short book is a good, fast read from an author who frequently "does" intelligence right. After a career in the business myself, he is one of only a few authors who I can always read.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book is not a thriller. There is little tension or melodrama (or drama, if you prefer) similar to the work of LeCarre. Littel exposes the complete absurdity of Cold War spying in a neat, fast paced book where even the central problem faced by the characters in Washington and Moscow seems completely worthless to even the layman reader.

If this book is a satire it is drained of humor both by the events in the book and by our understanding of how much has changed in the world since this book was written. Still, the book remains timely and the complete waste of time and lives made me more than a little sad about the state of international relations that exists to this day.

Highly recommended.
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I don't know where Littell obtained his information for this book, but he is right on the money regarding how the U.S. and Soviet Union would look at a defector. I have had some professional experience in the area of counterintelligence and this book is right on the money. Is the defector and his information real or disinformation meant to cause the enemy billions of dollars to change their weapon systems to combat ours or what they think is ours.
I have to admit I started the book with a feeling of Oh Hum another attempt at a spy book. Up until that time the only author I felt captured this area was John Le Carre. Now I have Littell.
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2nd novel I read by this author and I still don't like him. His plots are fragmented. His digressions on ops, Russian politics, are boring. He loses track of his characters. When he doesn't know how to end he throws in mental illness. This is the second novel in which he uses this gimmick.
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To be honest, until the TV series "Legends", which I've been binge-watching, I wasn't aware of Robert Littell. My loss! This, his first novel, was a masterful read and I can't wait to read more of his books. My only complaint has nothing to do with Mr. Littell. There were more typos in this book than any other I recall reading. I hope the publisher attends to this. It's an insult to some great writing.
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