Friday, 23 October 2015

Legends by Robert Littell


published 2005



Peru bar Chosica




[‘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.














12 comments:

  1. It's good to know you didn't go through with beating yourself over the head, Tracy! I'm not quite sure how I feel about this one. On the one hand, the setting seems interesting and atmospheric - a major plus for me. On the other, I'm a little less keen on the writing style. Something about it just isn't drawing me in. And I'm not one for a whole lot of violence unless it's absolutely essential for the plot. Hmm.....may wait on this one.

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    1. Margot, I know that you really know that I am Moira and that it was Tracy who recommended it to me. Or perhaps I have multiple identities, like the spy in the book, and you have broken through my cover... don't tell anyone!
      I think this is for real espionage fans - if it's not your thing, read something else.

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    2. Oh, goodness!!! I am so sorry that I used the wrong name, Moira *Deep Blush. Slinking to corner*

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    3. Nice coverup Margot - no-one will guess that's my spy name now....

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  2. I did like The Company, but it's not my favorite by him, that would be Walking Back the Cat. I liked Legends too.

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    1. I love that title, Walking Back the Cat - I'm sure I will read it one day, just based on that title.

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  3. I will have to read him sooner rather than later I think, but then in the double-dealing world of espionage, I could be lying and he stays in the tubs!

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    1. You might be him, or you might be the hero of the book - that cover story about being a mild-mannered book collector and hoarder all a lie...

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  4. I really don't remember the plot or anything else much about this book, but I do remember loving it. Thanks for the link to my blog. I did read The Company and Legends before I started blogging. I would reread this one but I have a ton of Robert Littell books and need to read some others first. The TV show doesn't sound much like the book, but it could still be interesting. Someday.

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    1. He wrote a lot didn't he? I'll be guided by you as to what to try next. I hadn't even heard of the TV series of this one till I started looking it up.

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  5. I've never actually heard of this author, but point me in the direction of a good spy novel and I'm happy! And the photograph is brilliant - glad you got a chance to use it, Moira!

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    1. Thanks Linda - anyone who likes spy thrillers should definitely be introduced to Robert Littell. And thanks for understanding about the photo!

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