Don't be surprised if this generation-spanning spy saga ignites widespread nostalgia for the days of the Cold War. It immerses the reader in a world of comparative political clarity, a time when clear-cut secular ideologies clashed on a grand scale. Robert Littell's characters spend little time, though, discussing political philosophies. They know from the start which side they're on. The "Company" of the title is, of course, the Central Intelligence Agency.
The story begins in 1950, just as the CIA is emerging from World War II's Office of Strategic Services. By this time, the U.S. and Russia are already circling each other for global supremacy, their recent common cause against Germany relegated to history. Into this bubbling geopolitical stew come Jack McAuliffe and Leo Kritzky, Yale roommates recruited by the CIA to join its first generation of shadow warriors. A fellow Yalie, Russian exchange student Yevgeny Alexandrovich Tsipin, returns home for KGB training and reassignment to America as a deep undercover agent.
Joining McAuliffe and Kritzky for a series of missions that will continue until the Soviet Union crumbles is high-principled E. Winston "Ebby" Ebbitt II, a Columbia University law school graduate. In the years ahead, these three friends will be in the backrooms and on the frontlines at the Hungarian uprising, the Bay of Pigs invasion, various domestic upheavals and the Russian war with Afghanistan. We see them fall in love, marry and have children who eventually follow in their furtive footsteps.
Unlike writers who use historical characters and events as backdrops for their fictional ones, Littell integrates them both seamlessly. The real CIA head spook, James Angleton, hovers over Liddell's trio of fictional agents, alternately inspiring and outraging them with his mania for detail and his raging paranoia. Stung by the revelation that his mentor and good friend Kim Philby is a spy for Russia, Angleton is convinced there's a high-level "mole" in the agency.
CIA directors Allen Dulles, William Colby, William Casey and others have "speaking" roles here, as do Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan. Glimpsed in the background are such familiars as William F. Buckley Jr., E. Howard Hunt, William Sloan Coffin and Frank Sinatra, his Rat Pack and gangster friends.
Littell populates his narrative with colorful, inventive spymasters, chief among them Angleton's Soviet counterpart, the pedophile Starik; the CIA's hard-drinking and duplicitous Harvey "The Sorcerer" Torriti; and Israel's eagle-eyed Ezra Ben Ezra, affectionately dubbed "the Rabbi."
Readers who lived through or who have studied the Cold War will relish Littell's touches of verisimilitude—his off-handed references to movies, comic strips, songs, personalities and books which were popular during the periods he writes about. In one scene, the Sorcerer praises Littell's own then-current novel, The Defection of A.J. Lewinter.
Certain references, though, reveal either the author's carelessness or else his taunting of readers to be attentive to the kind of minute details by which spies live or die. For example, he has President Kennedy recommending Catch-22 several months before it was reviewed in The New York Times. He has a character in February 1951, listening to the song "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," which he identifies as then being "number three on the American top ten." Not likely, since the song didn't even enter the Billboard charts until August 1951, and then rose only to the number 19 spot. His characters use such words and phrases as "security blanket," "maven" and "liaising," not, perhaps, before they actually entered the language, but certainly well before they became conversationally commonplace.
In the book's final chapter, set in 1995, Littell makes it plain that even though the Cold War is over, "the great game [of spying] goes on." He describes a man, code-named "Ramon," waiting in his car in a Washington, D.C., suburb to pick up $50,000 for American secrets he has stolen for the Russians. That man was real FBI agent Robert Hanssen—and it would be five more years before he was caught.
Edward Morris reviews from Nashville. Copyright 2002 BookPage Reviews
ForeWord Reviews 2002 July
Here is a dazzling exploration of espionage the art of the possible in a wilderness of mirrors. The narrative surges forward from the peril-fraught Berlin of the 1950s through the doomed Hungarian Uprising, the botched Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and Russia s disastrous Afghanistan campaign during the 80s, to the cliff-hanger anti-Gorbachev putsch attempt of 1991. Presidents of the U.S. and Soviet Union, as well as CIA chiefs and traitors, fuel the action. The hard-drinking, gun-toting Harvey Torriti ( the Sorcerer ) heads the Berlin station, recreating his inimitable real-life original, William Harvey. Through Torriti and his Sorcerer s Apprentice the newly recruited Yale graduate Jack McAuliffe the author plays out his major theme: the failed exfiltration of a would-be defector, which indicates a mole in the CIA network. Torriti s efforts to unearth the mole demonstrate on-site spycraft at its best; those of counter-intelligence chief James Jesus Angleton show off-site cerebration at an agency-crippling worst. In tracking the careers of McAuliffe and his two college friends, Littell explores love and loyalty, abandonment and betrayal. Locales (Berlin, Budapest, Moscow, Cuba, and particularly Afghanistan) are grippingly drawn, with a pervasive fear of set-up, exposure, and capture. Every event is loaded: In our line of work, said Torriti, coincidences don t exist. Littell blows open the hidden worlds of the KGB, Mossad, and MI6, all prone to the cancerous power of disinformation. Equally incisive in depicting agents and moles, he strips away facades to reveal just what makes people sustain or betray causes at the risk of honor, family, and life and to what benefit. Constant tension gives The Company its cutting edge: Littell perfectly captures the obsession and guilt often misguided central to careers and collapses in espionage. Strait-laced Angleton, endlessly cross-referencing a mountain of mole-tracking files, slides into paranoia; Starik, the visionary, sexually corrupt Russian mole-handler, sinks into senility believing he could destroy the U.S.A through economic sabotage. Both shared the ideologue s terrifying isolation. Wrenchingly shown are the private hells that followed the failure of the Hungarian Uprising, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the (un)necessary sacrifice of agents. Washington D.C. s electric supplier, Starik s birthplace and hidden Berlin presence, and the ephemeral Donna s fate will puzzle keen readers; Amy Knight s Spies Without Cloaks and Trento s The Secret History of the CIA will reward industrious ones; and Littell s fourteen previous books will delight all newcomers. A writer who can happily use hypogean, appositely quote Greek historians, and on a single page alert readers to the brilliant S ndor Pet fi, Karinthy Frigyes, and Attila J zsef deserves generous thanks. Copyright 2002 ForeWord Reviews
Kirkus Reviews 2002 January #1
Virtually a history of the US for the past fifty years as seen through the dark lens of the CIA.The author of several terse thrillers (Walking Back the Cat, 1997, etc.) here widens his scope in a fictional history of the CIA that encompasses a slate of major historical events-not to mention enough double and triple agents, politicians, wives, and lovers to employ half of the Screen Actors Guild in the inevitable miniseries. The briskly paced narrative begins in Germany in the 1950s as the Cold War and the CIA take shape. Agent Harry Torriti, the Sorcerer, tutors apprentice Jack McAuliffe, fresh from Yale, in an attempt to bring in a KGB spy from East to West Berlin. When the KGB catches wind of the attempted "exfiltration," a decades-long search for KGB moles in the CIA ensues, becoming one of the story's many compelling threads. Without pushing coincidence to implausible lengths, Littell has Torriti, McAuliffe and his Yale classmates, their wives and families, turning up, Rich-Man, Poor-Man style, at the Hungarian Revolution, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, the Russian-Afghan War (now disturbingly resonant), and the Gorbachev putsch. A few clunky love scenes aside, the moments when personal cares tragically intersect with professional expediencies are genuinely wrenching. Littell skillfully casts these conflicts against epic moments (the flight of Hungarian refugees, the struggle in the streets of Moscow to save Gorbachev) that are as surging as similar set pieces in Dr. Zhivago and Gone With the Wind. The familiar theme, often tragically illustrated, is to believe no one, certainly no American president, as suggested in a wickedly funny send-up of Ronald Reagan (one of many real-life characters who appear in a bid for verisimilitude). It's the CIA that, like Dr. Mabeuse in Fritz Lang's M, rules the US from behind the curtain. Accurate? Only CIA operatives know. Fascinating? Surprising? Suspenseful? Yes, yes, yes. Copyright Kirkus 2002 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved
Library Journal Reviews 2001 November #1
Here's a real preview. This thriller isn't coming out until April, but the publisher is already plugging it like mad. Littell is a former Newsweek journalist and the author of many respected spy thrillers who has never quite broken out. Overlook president Peter Mayer went after him to write a thriller embracing the entire history of the Cold War, and here it is. Rights have been sold to six countries, and the book is being promoted with the painfully relevant tag line "the spies are always with us." Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2001 December #1
For readers enthralled by the phrase walking back the cat (also the title of one of Littell's previous thrillers), this hefty tome will be nirvana. Littell, whose spy thrillers have ensnared readers since 1973's The Defection of A.J. Lewinter, here turns his literary eye and rapier-sharp mind on the Central Intelligence Agency. Starting during the Berlin years in the deep freeze of the Cold War, Littell follows two generations of agents and administrators right up through the 1995 mole episode. He devotes one gut-wrenching segment to the CIA's efforts in Afghanistan in 1983, which will have heightened significance for today's readers. Using historic figures amplified by artfully drawn figments of his abundant imagination, Littell also dramatizes the internal feuds and cutbacks that left the CIA, already vulnerable on the moral knife edge of espionage, barely able to meet the challenges of a changing world. Gathering its power slowly, the novel accelerates as events become more and more familiar and current. This is a work of fiction, yet its scholarship and analysis are outstanding. Littell avoids the didactic in favor of wit, irony, and ambiguity. A sure winner for libraries of all types. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/01.] Barbara Conaty, Library of Congress Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2002 February #3
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. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.