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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Since the publication of his 1973 debut thriller, The Defection of A. J. Lewinter, Robert Littell has evolved into one of the most credible, consistently interesting espionage novelists of the modern era. With the possible exception of Charles McCarry, no other American writer has illuminated the world of the professional spy so convincingly and with such a profusion of gritty, authoritative detail.
Littell's 13th novel, The Company, is clearly his magnum opus: a huge, multigenerational saga that encompasses the complete 40-year history of the bitterly contested Cold War. The novel begins in late 1950 in the emblematic center of that war: Berlin. CIA station chief Harvey Torrita (a.k.a. the Sorcerer) and his newly arrived assistant, Jack McAuliffe (known, naturally, as the Sorcerer's Apprentice), are attempting to organize the exfiltration of a KGB defector who possesses some dangerous secrets. The most vital of these concerns the possible existence of a Soviet agent -- a mole -- in the upper echelons of the Western intelligence services. The meticulously planned defection fails, due to a high-level security leak -- clear evidence that a highly placed traitor really does exist. The mole, we learn shortly, is Adrian "Kim" Philby, an MI5 department head and legendary double agent. The Sorcerer's attempts to unmask Philby dominate the early sections of the narrative. In Littell's version of events, however, Philby is not the only traitor in the corridors of power. A second double agent, code-named Sasha, has successfully infiltrated the CIA. Sasha's controller is a near-mythical Soviet intelligence officer known as "Starik" (the Old Man). Starik's long-term goal involves the destruction of the capitalist system through the destabilization of the Western economy. As Starik's devious master plan slowly takes shape, Littell provides us with a dramatic overview of many of the Cold War's most memorable moments.
Effectively intermingling actual historical figures (Philby, Allen Dulles, Boris Zeltsin, John and Robert Kennedy, and -- most vividly -- the brilliant, obsessive counterintelligence specialist James Jesus Angleton) with his fictional creations (credibly drawn Cold Warriors from the CIA, the KGB, MI6, and Israel's Mossad), Littell moves the action from one political pressure point to another. Highlights include the tragic account of the Hungarian uprising of 1956 (crushed with brutal efficiency by Soviet forces); a meticulous portrait of the conception, planning, and execution of the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion; and a vivid glimpse of Russia's long, futile ground war in Afghanistan. Littell ends the novel, appropriately enough, with a masterful re-creation of the Gorbachev putsch of 1995, a failed revolt that nevertheless effectively ended Communist Party dominance in the USSR.
The Company is the sort of popular epic that entertains and educates at the same time. In a compelling, wide-ranging narrative that combines the historical sweep of The Revolutionist -- Littell's underrated account of Soviet life during the Stalin years -- with the suspense and immediacy of his best thrillers (The Sisters, The Amateur, The Once and Future Spy), Littell gives us the Cold War era in all its ambiguous glory, showing us the all-too-human faces behind the dominant ideological conflict of the 20th century. (Bill Sheehan)