Friday, 23 October 2015
Legends by Robert Littell
[‘Lincoln Dittmann’ is working for the CIA, on a mission in South America. He has met up with a Texan called Leroy Streeter.]
Hanging out with Leroy Streeter in a booth at the rear of the Kit Kat Klub on the main drag of Foz do Iguaçú for the second night running, polishing off the last of the sirloin steak and French fries, washing it down with cheap Scotch in a shot glass and lukewarm beer chasers drunk straight from the bottle, Lincoln watched the hookers slotting coins into the jukebox and swaying in each other’s arms to the strains of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” which, judging from the fact that it was played over and over, night after night, was either number one on the Brazilian hit parade or the only 45-rpm record in the machine still functioning...
He looked over at the dancers padding around on the broad pine planks of the floor in front of the jukebox; one young man, whom Leroy had identified as a Pakistani he’d seen at Daoud’s boondock training camp, was hugging Leroy’s skinny friend with the red-dyed hair and dancing in place, shifting his weight from foot to foot in time to the music.
commentary: This is yet another recommendation from TracyK (of Bitter Tea and Mystery, though the book isn’t reviewed there that I can find): she mentioned it in a comment at Col’s Criminal Library. She said ‘I loved, loved, loved Legends by Littell’. That was enough for me and I got hold of a copy sharpish, and read it in a couple of days.
This despite the fact that I was nearly struck dead a few years ago * by Robert Littell’s The Company, a sprawling fictionalized history of the CIA running to a ludicrous 900 pages. I hated it, and thought then that I wouldn’t read any more by him. Well, promises are made to be broken in the two-timing world of espionage.
This was much better – I didn’t like it as much as Tracy did, but it was mostly very entertaining – a bit too gruesome at times, and quite repetitious. It was also quite long – but at 400 pages less than half the size of the other one, so I’ll hold back on that criticism. Apparently it has been made into a TV series, but I know nothing about that.
* I disliked it so much I wanted to beat myself over the head with it, and it is a brick of a book so that would have been dangerous.
The hero is Martin Odum, a disgraced CIA agent when the book begins – the section above is a flashback. He has spent his life working for the organization under a number of different identities, or legends, and now he is confused as to who he really is. Does he have Multiple Personality Disorder? Which was his real personality – Lincoln, or Martin, or Dante? Each has a fully worked-out background.
There is also a complex plot featuring the KGB, the new regime in Russia, Jewish settlements in Israel, more Middle Eastern politics and a world pre-9/11. Martin Odum is working as a private eye, and agrees to search for a missing husband: the wife is a Lubavitcher Jew and needs his consent for a get, or divorce. She has been abandoned in Israel.
Our hero heads across the world to try to solve the problem, accompanied by the abandoned wife’s beautiful sister – this has a bizarre echo of those 19th/20th century books about Americans sorting out marriages in Europe – Henry James, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Shuttle, Edith Wharton. (Littell does not in any other aspect have anything in common with these writers or their plots.)
It’s a weird book: some of it is a very traditional espionage plot, but Littell has also tried to look at the crumbling world of a spy who has lost his bearings and might have serious psychological problems. There is a lot of quite horrible violence, and women don’t come off well. But I’ve certainly read worse, and it kept me going to the last unlikely page.
And, it gave me the chance to use this marvellous photo. In the extract, ‘Lincoln’ is at ‘Foz do Iguacu…in Brazil, right across the frontier from Paraguay at a place called Triple Border, where Brazil and Paraguay and Argentina meet.’
But I just really like this picture, which is in the spirit of every South American bar in fiction. It shows a hotel in Chosica in Peru in 1923 and comes from the Field Museum Library.