I Spy

Coincidentally enough, while news media were pondering the death of East German spymaster Markus Wolf and the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising -- when the Cold War turned uncomfortably hot -- I happened to be catching up on a number of espionage novels I'd passed by in recent years.

They caused me to see general patterns in the Cold War spy novels, patterns that continue even today. The best spy thrillers, it seems, have told three central stories:

The story of betrayal. This usually but not necessarily involves double agents revealing secrets of the West to the Soviet Union. It can also concern an American or British spy's moral dilemma in deceiving the people he knows in the 'host' country or how the political/military needs of the West lead him to support then betray our third-party allies.

The story of brutalization. These novels track how the spy game makes Western agents become as harsh or duplicitous as the Communist enemy, undermining the very democratic principles we're supposed to be championing.

Or the story of sacrifice. In order to win the espionage game -- or just play it -- the good guys often find they have to give up things (see above, the brutalization). But this tale can be the story of a futile sacrifice. Or a heroic one. Obviously, all three of these stories are often related, nestled inside each other.

It seems to me that these are the abiding moral concerns of the finest modern spy thrillers: These books would include (but aren't limited to) the best of Graham Greene, early Len Deighton, early-to-mid John le Carre, a couple of Alan Furst's. All other basic narratives in espionage novels are more or less dressed-up variants of James Bond derring-do: how we trumped our dastardly foe through pluck, superior gizmos and dashed cleverness. That's not to say such tales aren't fun to read; but they're not exactly in the business of seriously considering and/or questioning the espionage enterprise.

All of this came to me while catching up with the heralded spy novelist, Robert Littell, whose work I hadn't read since I'd enjoyed his The Defection of A. J. Lewinter as a teenager in 1973. Since then, he has produced a number of books, notably Legends (2005) and The Company (2002), that have been hailed as masterpieces of the genre. In particular, The Company has been called America's answer to John le Carre's broodings on the classic Cambridge spy ring (Philby-Burgess-Maclean).

Well, no, it isn't, not really. Both books are disappointing insofar as Mr. Littell's characters are mostly cardboard and his style mostly serviceable when not outright clunky. Serves me right for granting any credence to a blurb by Tom Clancy, a dreadful author whom I once heard sagely tell a rapt audience that Samuel Johnson "invented the dictionary" (yes, Clancy said that, no, Johnson didn't invent it).

Legends is stranger, more convoluted but more easily dismissed. It's an improbable variation on Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity. In that book, Jason Bourne suffers amnesia, and while people try to kill him, he slowly discovers that he was a professional spook-assassin -- and that his employer and his former target are both after him.

In Legends, old CIA hand Martin Odum must struggle with three fabricated identities -- his "legends." He can no longer recall which one is his real life. Like Bourne, he tries to dig up the truth with the help of a lovely woman, while various people try to kill him. If the reader can't figure out who Martin is, what caused his memory loss and who's after him, the reader is not trying very hard. I'm not a whiz at deciphering such things, but it seemed plain to me. What's more, it didn't seem particularly interesting or credible; I was mostly just curious to see how Mr. Littell would work it out. Yes, spy thrillers are fantasies, but the best exist in a tension between realism (espionage is an awful business) and make-believe (a heroic individual armed with an atomic tie clip -- yes, you there -- can defeat whole armies). Legends does have a hall-of-mirrors or it's-all-in-his-head quality that lends it a weirdly insubstantial feel, but this only makes its convolutions seems all the more unhinged from reality.

In fact, rather than Cold War tales, both Bourne and Legends really belong to the subset of 'rogue CIA operations' with the villain being, not so much the Communists, but our own CIA supervisors. In short, Legends is a late, baroque product of the Watergate and Church commission era.

The Company, on the other hand, is much more ambitious in the epic manner. It's a fictional history of the agency -- all the way from Truman's founding directive and the early days in Berlin through the Hungarian fiasco, the Philby fiasco, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the 'Operation Mongoose' fiasco and so on, right up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's a multi-generational saga, with the children of the first wave of true-believing agents picking up the banner in the '60s and '70s and with real-life figures (the paranoid counterespionage chief James Jesus Angleton) interacting with the fictional spies.

An epic novel tends to develop character over long stretches of time. So they may seem like only stereotypes or outlines at the beginning, but they fill in over the long haul, they change, they deepen. But not here. With the notable exceptions of Angleton and the corpulent, alcoholic but wily Berlin chief Torriti (aka "the Sorcerer"), the American agens are all true blue go-getters until they encounter betrayal or overreaching disaster, as in Hungary and the Bay of Pigs. Then they turn bitter in identical and non-distinguishing ways.

The Soviets, in contrast, are run by a nefarious genius (Starik -- "old man" in Russian) who is, of course, a pedophile and remains a pedophile. I have little doubt that in the Cold War, the Soviets were the bad guys for the most part, but I suspect they were bad guys not because individually they were pervs. This is pretty much the extent of Mr. Littell's moral complexity. We turn sour from our dirty and often incompetent dealings (although some of us manfully press on); they were sickos from the start.

Mr. Littell's research is awe-inspiring. He produces almost molecular details about every location, every piece of tradecraft. But background research does not constitute a novel, and when he does write about something the reader might be familiar with, it can feel pointless, so much flotsam. In the early '50s, two young characters fall in love and are delighted to find they share the same favorite novel. That novel? Catcher in the Rye. This is akin to saying two lovers like Seinfeld. It's such a commonplace, it tells us next to nothing about them as individuals. It's characteristic of Mr. Littell's writing that in all the intertwining plots, one frequently can't tell the fathers from the sons, long-time friend from long-time friend, and the reader has to flip back to determine, again, just which cookie-cutter character he's currently following.

Because of all his historical research and because The Company spans some 40 years, Mr. Littell often has to lay so much pipe (translation: stuff in exposition), the reader is burdened with sentences such as the following. They both have take-a-deep-breath structures, but my favorite is the second -- its subject nearly expires by the time the verb appears:

"Bissell, a tall, lean, active-volcano of a man who had replaced the ailing Wiz as Deputy Director of Operations, loped back and forth along the rut he'd worn in the government-issue carpeting, his hands clasped behind his back, his shoulders stooped and bent into the autumn cat's-paw ruffling through the open windows of the corner room. Hunt, a dapper man who had been assigned to kick ass down in Miami until the 700-odd anti-Castro splinter groups came up with what, on paper at least, could credibly pass for a government in exile, kept his head bobbing in eager agreement."

Next time: three current books about undercover doings that are definitely worth a look.

November 14, 2006 2:26 PM | | Comments (2)



Thanks for writing. I don't mean to sound like a broken record about this particular book, but if you are seriously thinking about espionage literature as a genre, I would recommend reading Frank Cawelti's study, Adventure, Mystery, Romance. It does not specifically address spy novels, but its chapters on the hard-boiled detective are very applicable, even revelatory. The sense of a morally compromised world, the modern urban setting that's actually derived from romantic poets like Baudelaire as much as any serious history or journalism ("the lurid city at night") and the psyche of the what he calls "the inside dopester" (the skeptical detective who always knows that "the fix is in," that there's a "real" story, a grim conspiracy behind the ostensible facts of a case): All of these have profoundly shaped my own understanding of the spy genre.

Good luck.

Jerome Weeks

Thanks for this post--I want to write something longer about spy books some day and this helps me think about the topic. Very smart.

It's interesting to watch writers try & fail with research. I just heard Ha Jin speak last night about researching Tiananmen for The Crazed: he ultimately threw away all that researched stuff and just wrote from a very limited, individual perspective.

I guess that's the difference btw. a writer like Ha Jin & one like Littell: knowing when to cull the research.

Anyway, a lovely post. Thanks.


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