First Posted: 3/28/2012
As an avid enthusiast of spy novels, the only thing that made me sad about the breakup of the former Soviet Union was the thought that espionage would no longer be germane as a subject for fiction, and I was pretty much right. For years, I’ve had to content myself with rereading John le Carre and Len Deighton, but all that changed when I was picking through a box of old books and discovered Robert Littell’s “The Company: A novel of the CIA,” published back in 2002. How this book escaped my attention all these years, I’ll never know, but I’m glad I unearthed it because not only is it a cracking good spy versus spy novel, but it also provides – for readers of a certain age – an insightful and even nostalgic trip back in time.
“The Company” is massive, but its skillful mingling of real and fictional characters, intricate plot twists and fascinating historical details kept me enthralled for all but a few of its nearly 900 pages. Covering a span of 45 years, the book begins in 1950, with the recruitment of three recent Yale graduates into the CIA. Jack McAuliffe and Leo Kritzky are former classmates and members of Yale’s Crew, while their fellow inductee, Elliott Ebbitt III, better known as “Ebby,” is a few years older. All three eventually attain top positions in The Company, as the CIA is known by its employees.
Jack is trained by Harvey Torretti, code named “Sorcerer,” and is soon dubbed “the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Harvey, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking thorn in almost everyone’s side is, nevertheless, a brilliant operative who has a knack for ferreting out clues that others miss. In the first decade covered by the book, he unmasks of one of the most notorious double agents in our history, Kim Philby. By far one of the most interesting characters, Harvey is matched only by Starik, his Russian nemesis, and their destinies parallel one another. Starik, a taciturn and enigmatic figure whose tastes run to little girls, runs not only Philby, but also his replacement, another mole known only as SASHA by the CIA. SASHA’s identity will stun you when he is uncovered some 30 years (and many, many pages) later. Starik is also the handler of his agents’ Russian-born contact, who, we learn early on, went to Yale with Jack and Leo. The contact, Yevgeny Tsipin, goes by many names over the years, and because he is under deep cover, he must live the lonely and dangerous life of a man whose job requires that he remain virtually invisible.
As “The Company” takes us from the McCarthy/Stalin era onward, we witness, through the eyes of its characters, the tragic end of the ill-fated Hungarian Revolution, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, the Russian debacle in Afghanistan, and finally, Glasnost and the putsch against Gorbachev in the early ’90s. Although I was familiar with these events, there was much about them I didn’t understand until I read “The Company,” so, despite the fact that it is fiction, the book gave me a lot of insight into recent American and world history. While I can’t vouch for their accuracy, I also found the history of the CIA evolution and the portraits of the presidents it served during those periods fascinating.
The book’s only disappointment – and I’m nit-picking here – is the pretty unbelievable idea that Jack’s, Leo’s and Ebby’s children would also come to work for the CIA. Yes, this tactic allows Littell to turn “The Company” into a family saga, but it strikes a false note somehow, even though the kids’ adventures and discoveries are gripping.
However, the book is packed with goodies that balance out this minor complaint. Spy fiction aficionados will revel in all the cool stuff about tradecraft: the dead drops, cutouts, one-time code pads, legends, and code words. Above all, I appreciated Littell’s skill at depicting the murky, surreal, “Alice in Wonderland” nature of the world of espionage, where nothing is as it seems, where the ends may or may not justify the means, and where the inhabitants must wade through forests of lies and skillfully set traps with courage, cunning, above all, the conviction that their causes are just.