Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Robert Littell's Debut Novel, The Defection of A. J. Lewinter

A. J. Lewinter is an American scientist who works on the ceramic nose cones for the MIRV program. He is attending a symposium in Tokyo when he walks into the Soviet embassy and declares his intention to defect.
He had planned the defection for months with his usual relish for detail—the trip to Japan, the pills, the shampoo, the X rays, the last-minute postcard to Maureen, even the book to read on the plane to Moscow. But somehow he had ended up on the set of a Hitchcock film—in a shabby embassy, in an antique room, in the midst of people who did not speak his language.
From that point on both sides are trying to decide how much damage has been done. How useful is Lewinter's knowledge is if it is shared with the Soviet Union? Will the Soviet Union even want to make use of his information? Could he be a double agent?

The story unfolds with cynicism and humor. The structure of the book follows the stages of a chess game. There are six sections: The Opening, The Response, The Middle Game, The Gambit, The End Game, and The Passed Pawn. The game being played is ruthless. One player even admits that he would be willing to play for very high stakes:
"You know, I've often dreamed of playing chess with live people. The ones that are taken off the board would be killed—" 
"Could you do it?" Sarah interrupted in a low voice. "Could you really do it?" 
"I know I could. I could even sacrifice—give up one man in order to gain a position or advance a gambit."
This book has a bleak outlook. I have been reading a string of spy thrillers by John le Carre that have a darker, less optimistic mood. Even so, this book was very enjoyable. This is a book I could reread right now.

The characters are well drawn and interesting, on both sides. In some spy fiction, one feels that the players are doing what they do for the greater good, even if they or others must make sacrifices. In this case, each person has more invested in achieving personal success than in the success of their country's political ideals.

The Defection of A. J. Lewinter was Robert Littell's debut novel; it won the British Crime Writers Association's Gold Dagger Award in 1973.

I have read two other books by Littell. One is Legends, which I loved. It is about an ex-C.I.A. operative who has had so many false identities (“legends”) that he is not even sure who he really is.

The other is The Company, which is a very, very long saga of the Cold War beginning in the early 1950's and going up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. After finishing that book, I passed along my copy because I was sure I would not subject myself to that long story (with lots of boring bits) again. But a couple of years ago I bought a hard back copy because I think I would like to give it another try. I have a few more books by Littell to read first, though. Recommendations would be appreciated.


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Publisher:   Penguin Books, 2003 (orig. pub. 1973) 
Length:       293 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      US, Soviet Union
Genre:        Espionage fiction
Source:      I purchased this book.


14 comments:

  1. Robert Littell is one of my favorite authors. I've read The Company twice, yes it's long, but so interesting, I've always wondered how much of it was true. Have your read Walking Back the Cat?

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    1. Oh, I am glad to hear someone has read The Company twice and liked it both times. I do think I would enjoy it even more the second time, and I have forgotten a lot of it.

      I have not read Walking Back the Cat but I do have a copy. I will move it up on the TBR pile. Thanks.

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  2. You make a good point about the characters in a lot of spy fiction, Tracy. Even if they're supposed to be the 'bad guys,' we still see that many of them think that what they're doing is for the greater good. That's what, I think, makes spy fiction so interesting in terms of its moral and character ambiguity. And this story certainly shows that!

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    1. Margot, there are so many elements in spy fiction to explore. Various characters' beliefs and cultures and how it influences them, for one thing. It never gets old for me.

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  3. Been reading or read this one for ages actually - thanks Tracy, glad to hear that it stands up.

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    1. Now if I can just read more of his books, Sergio. I bought a good number of them after I read Legends.

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  4. Espionage gets me confused! I've heard so many good things about Robert Littel's books, though, that I've thought of trying one. The Company sounds too long to be the one to start with, so maybe this one. I like cynical humor!

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    1. I get very confused reading a lot of espionage stories, Laurie, but usually by the end I enjoy them anyway. This one did not seem so confusing.

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  5. Well I'm the same as you - have read Company (which I hated) and Legends (which I liked). AS it was your reco that got me reading Legends, perhaps I should try this one too!

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    1. This one had a lot of dialogue, Moira, which I don't usually like, but it worked well for me. I would love to hear your reaction to it.

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  6. Littell's name is familiar, Tracy, but I do not believe I've read any of his work. By happenstance I've begun revisiting le Carré of late, and reading him with more patience and understanding than I had the first go-round. You've piqued my interest in Littell now, and I do believe I shall revisit him, as well.

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    1. Robert Littell is definitely worth trying, Mathew. I am not an expert on either le Carre or Littell, but their books seem to have similar themes.

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  7. Tracy, if this book is structured like a chess game, then it's definitely for me. I absolutely love chess.

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    1. I don't know much at all about chess, Prashant, but I assume this book handles it well. I liked the way he structured the book.

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