Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Amateur by Robert Littell: Thriller about the CIA being blackmailed by one of its own!

I must say that I have a great fondness for Robert Littell's books. This doesn't mean that these books are warm and fuzzy, far from it: they demand attention like the great and often complex thrillers that they are, while maintaining exceptional originality and the ability to surprise the reader, even this reader who has devoured seemingly the entire world of spy thrillers. Littell's outstanding writing, wry humor and unvarnished cynicism add a lot to the appeal. There is even more, however. Littell creates characters that are unique, but in wholly organic ways, with nothing forced or added just for show.

Some of the appealing subjects that recur in Littell's novels may be linked to his love of chess. In any event, they include cryptography and chaos theory, both of which appear as central parts of some novels. The books are never pedantic, however, and Littell shows us a lot about human nature and the way that the underworld of espionage often uses human nature as its currency.

I first heard the phrase, "Any thing worth doing is worth doing badly" rather incongruously in a research lab at England's Oxford University, in the late 1970s. At the very start of The Amateur, Littell uses this statement as an epigram that defines the amateur vs. the professional (the latter being one who is compelled to do everything well, at least everything that is worthwhile). The Amateur definitely delivers what it promises, a spy thriller from the amateur perspective, and woe betide any professionals who make the mistake of getting in this particular amateur's way.

The story begins with a terrorist invasion of a US embassy in Germany and the tragic shooting of one of the hostages. The young hostage was Sarah Diamond, the fiancee of one Charlie Heller, whose day job is devising unique codes and decoding messages for the CIA. Heller's night passion, other than Sarah, is searching for ciphers in Shakespeare's writing.

Heller is understandably crushed, and wants to know when the CIA is going after the terrorists to exact revenge. The answer is less than satisfactory: the CIA isn't going to take any action.

After trying normal channels, Heller reaches the limit of his patience, and literally takes matters into his own hands, which requires the dangerous scheme of blackmailing the CIA to turn him into a field agent. All of those secret messages he decoded turn out to be great blackmail material, compromising the highest CIA officials.

So, the race is on. While Heller is being trained and then sent behind the Iron Curtain to find the terrorists, the CIA rips apart his apartment, car and everything else they can find, looking for the stolen messages. Heller's mission is revenge. The CIA's mission is self-preservation: they want to destroy the incriminating information and then kill Heller on foreign soil, or, better yet, have a foreign intelligence agency do the job for them.

All along, Littell employs his trademark mix of humor, wit, action, word play and cynicism to great effect. Near the start, Heller is occupied with decoding messages from a dyslexic spy in Prague who can't use the codes properly. There is a stunning scene where Sarah's elderly father, a concentration camp survivor, watches CIA agents storm into his house, tear it apart and interrogate him: Mr. Diamond remarks that he isn't afraid because he has been through this kind of treatment before, when the Nazi's took his family to the camps. The American agents go blithely about their business, asserting that "this is different because it is a case of National Security," precisely echoing the very rationale used by the Nazi thugs 50 years earlier.

Littell really pumps up the volume once Heller crosses into Czechoslovakia. Multiple story lines emerge, they begin to intersect with violent results, and finally the stories converge in a stunningly deceitful and deadly manner. The collisions involve Heller, a Czech spymaster-Shakespearean scholar, the dyslexic Czech spy, the CIA and its agents, and, of course, the targeted terrorists. Revenge is a theme that unites several of the characters, from old Mr. Diamond to young Mr. Heller, and even the Eastern Block spymaster. Will their revenge be served hot, served cold, or not served at all?

Technorati Tags:, , , , , , , , , ,
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator

Sphere: Related Content


  1. Glad to have found your blog! I'm excited to be able to find a site that focuses on topics I love. If you get a chance, I hope you'll consider writing some reviews for AC. I have a link to it here. After a few of your articles are published there, you can publish anything you want, get exposure for your material there and get it viewed by Google searches. Pretty cool.

    Your work deserves even more exposure to the general reading public. :)

  2. Hi-
    Hopefully, my blog shows up and, at the top right, articles that take you to the link I tried to include.

  3. Okay,
    My Blog should show up now and, at the top right of that blog, the link I was trying to include before. You'll have to click on an article to see it, probably - top right of Blog, list of articles.