Thursday, July 21, 2005

Robert Littell: Legends

This has been an exceptional year for thrillers. We've had Charles McCarry's Old Boys, Martin Cruz Smith's Wolves Eat Dogs, and now Robert Littell's Legends. OK, so the McCarry book came out last year, technically, but I read it this year, and you get the point. Any one of these books would have made it a vintage year, whenever it appeared.

Littell is the author of 13 other novels, all of them (so far as I know) dealing with espionage. He is an American citizen, a former Newsweek journalist, and lives in France. And that seems to be about all he is prepared to say about himself. Apart from the fact that he did four years in the US navy, has visited Russia quite often, and likes climbing mountains. If he has a web site of his own I certainly haven't found it. The Barnes and Noble feature Meet the Writer is remarkably uninformative.

Another mystery is why Legends comes to be published in the UK by Duckworth. Since the ownership of publishing companies seems to change weekly, I had to look up Duckworth and find out where it stands now. As far as I can discover it is still independent. And Littell's last book before Legends -- The Company -- was published by Pan Macmillan. It seems to be have been a substantial success. So how come he ain't still with them? One would not normally expect a writer to leave a major company for a minor one; albeit one with pretty good taste. Anwyay, there he is, and Legends has appeared in print, which is the main thing.

I don't much care for the cover of Legends, which does little to attract the reader; and the subtitle, 'a novel of dissimulation', doesn't do much either. If you don't know of Littell's reputation you might well pass the book by.

The design is pretty good. Size: what in England is called royal octavo; my favourite for a hardback. The text is a decent size; leading satisfactory; and it's longish -- nearly 400 pages -- but not too long.

So what's it about?

Well, Legends is about just that. But in espionage terms. A legend is a (fairly) fictional life story which is invented for a man (or woman) who has to adopt a new persona and go spying for his country. In this case the lead character, Martin Odum, has worked for the CIA and has had a number of legends.

Unfortunately, as we begin to discover, Odum at some point has undergone some kind of traumatic experience and is no longer sure which of his various personas is the real him. He has a distressing habit of drifting in and out of character and mostly not at his own volition.

However, in the shape of the retired CIA officer Martin Odum, now working as a private detective out of Brooklyn, Odum sets out to find a particular man in order to persuade him to give his wife a divorce.

And we go on from there.

The structure of Legends is extremely subtle. The chapters move back and forth over time, but in the masterly hands of Littell this is not a problem. On the contrary, it feels entirely natural. Before long we meet Lincoln Dittman, the civil-war historian, and Dante Pippen, the Irish bomber, both of whom are Odum; or were, at various times. Or is he really one of them? And gradually, as the chapters pass, we begin to suspect that there might be a fourth man, lurking underneath all of them. Psychiatrically speaking, Odum (or whoever) suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder.

I don't think I have ever read a book in which a sense of dread is so cleverly built up. I am definitely not a reader of the horror genre, and certainly don't watch horror movies, so I don't think the emotional effect here is horror. It is more a sense of being appalled as one gradually realises what has happened to Odum. Or whoever.

The background is, of course, immensely sophisticated, as you would expect from a former Newsweek man who has spent a lot of time in Russia. And other parts of the world. Like McCarry, Littell is knowedgeable, experienced, and has a strong sense of history. He has studied what goes on in the world.

Also like McCarry, Littell offers an explanation for the way in which things happened. In Littell's case it is an explanation for many of the key events in the last twenty years of the twentieth century. And there is a beautiful sense of irony about it. If it is not entirely convincing (to me), that is not Littell's fault. It is because he asks us to believe that the CIA is little smarter and more organised than I take it to be.

I have a few minor quibbles. There are occasional typos which I found irksome in the face of so much excellence. 'Stationary with a UK letterhead' is mentioned; we hear of 'custom's offices'; and one or two others.

Some readers might also question whether the introduction of a love story is too much of a sop to the usual conventions of the genre. I wouldn't say so myself, because I think the need to find someone with whom he can be intimate (in every sense) is part of Odum's character.

Overall, this is a book which rises above criticism. It is, I suspect, more of a man's book than a woman's. For those who prefer good old blood and thunder it may be a tad too sophisticated. By and large, however, it would be unreasonable to expect a novel ever to be much better.

Somewhere recently I read a piece about one of those frightfully clever lit'ry writers in which said writer was quoted as saying that all he cared about was how posterity judged him. This was further proof, in my estimation, that these guys have their screws loose.

Sensible writers do not give much thought to how posterity will judge them; they concentrate instead on getting through to readers in the present. And besides, as Keynes pointed out, in the long run we are all dead.

That said, however, if I had to choose a few books which might well be looked at in a hundred years' time, to give some idea of what was really important in the first decade of the twenty-first century, I would include the three thrillers mentioned in the first paragraph of this post. I would include out the Michael Cunninghams of this world, who will, I suspect, be rapidly forgotten.


Anonymous said...

This year, I read both "Wolves Eat Dogs" by Marting Cruz Smith and "Legends" by Robert Littell. I enjoyed Smith's latest Arkady Renko novel but I don't think it measured up to others in the series (Gorky Park, Polar Star, etc.). However, Martin Cruz Smith's least effort is far superior than a lot of authors' best work.

I am very pleased that I discovered Robert Littell this year. Legends shows that he is a master of the literate spy novel and I look forward to reading other books by him.

I haven't read Charles McCarry but I look forward to trying him. Thanks for the tip.

Fans of literate thrillers may also enjoy Alan Furst. He has written several World War II espionage novels. I enjoyed Kingdom of Shadows.

Matt Shaw
Winston-Salem, NC USA

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