A few years ago I came across Robert Littell, a highly recommended author in the spy genre-someone, I was told, who was equal or better than John le Carré one of my favorite authors. I have previously read Legends, which explores what happens to someone who has so many legends or identities that he begins to lose sight of who he really is and am planning to read The Company, a 900 page novel about the 40 year history of the CIA, but before I began such a huge endeavor I though it might be fun to read Littell’s first book written in 1973, The Defection of A.J. Lewinter.
A.J Lewinter is an eccentric physicist working on the ceramics use in the nose cones of ballistic missiles when one day he decides to defect to the Soviet Union. Although at one level it seems like Lewinter whose ceramic specialty is not top secret technology, does not have anything of much importance to give to the Soviet Union, a cat and mouse game ensues with each side trying to out bluff and out connive the other in order to gain an advantage in the Cold War. On the US side is a cold and calculating CIA operative named Diamond who heads up the investigation into what Lewinter knows and what he could possibly be giving the Soviets, while at the same time trying to send signals to the Soviets which he hopes will trick them into thinking that Lewinter is a fake or suspect his information. On the Soviet side, Pogodin must evaluate whether Lewinter who claims to have the missile trajectory codes is who he says he is or is really just a plant of the CIA.
As each side goes to greater and greater lengths to protect its secrets and guess what the other side is up to in order to gain an advantage, the absurdity of the whole situation becomes both wickedly funny and morbidly sad. Diamond is ruthless and calculating, stopping at nothing to out think and out maneuver Pogodin into thinking that Lewinter is a CIA plant and that the information he has is fake. Pogodin on the other hand knows that the risks for him in making the wrong decision regarding Lewinter could not only have lasting consequences on his career but also on the stability of the Soviet government who if they knew the codes were real could then spend less on guns and more on butter and create a better life for its citizens.
Littell seemed oddly prescient since I was reading this when Snowden and his revelations about the NSA were in the news. I could imagine both the NSA and CIA trying to do the same kind of damage control as Littell describes. Interestingly early on in the Snowden scandal, the idea that he couldn’t possibly know what he claimed to know since he didn’t have the necessary clearance level seemed to be what was mainly in the news, and then in a few days that changed just as it did with Lewinter.
This is a spy story, without a lot of car chases or physical action, but Littell manages to make the cerebral cat and mouse maneuvering between Pogodin and Diamond as thrilling as if it were a car chase!
Brenda’s Rating: ***1/2 (3 1/2 Stars out of 5)
Recommend this book to: Keith and Ken
Book Study Worthy: Sure, and reminiscence about the Cold War!
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