Review: The Company – Robert Littell

The Company Robert LittellMy version: Hardback
Genre: Historical Fiction Saxons, England, Vikings
Harper Collins
First published: 2018

From the cover:

“Welcome to the Company – better known as the CIA, to outsiders.
With a sharp eye for the pathos and absurdity of the spy game, internationally renowned novelist Robert Littell, seamlessly weaves together history and fiction to create a multigenerational, wickedly nostalgic saga that races across a landscape spanning the legendary Berlin base of the 1950s, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, The Bay of Pigs, Afghanistan, and the Gorbachev putsch. ‘The Company’ tells the thrilling story of agents imprisoned in double lives, fighting an amoral, elusive, formidable enemy – and each other – in an internecine battle with The Company itself. A brilliant, stunningly conceived epic thriller, The Company confirms Littell’s place among the genre’s elite.”

The Company is quite simply* an incredible novel. An incredible spy novel, about spies, about the CIA, about the repercussions of World War Two, about the invasion of Hungary, the Cold War, about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution/disillusion of the Soviet Union, about how the intelligence ‘industry’ coming to terms with life after just one enemy, ‘over there.’

Set between 1950 and 1995, it is about the CIA and how they emerged out of WWII, seemingly as a channel for old spies, like Allen Dulles and James Jesus Angleton, that nurtured an us against the rest of the world, family-like atmosphere. And all the latter’s intelligence, obsessiveness and phenomenal mind, he too is hook, lined and sinker-ed by Kim Philby. The fictional characters are sprinkled in and around the story, some holding it all together – the multi-generational angle – along with the ones you can look up on Wikipedia. Then, as in the case of The Sorcerer, ‘Harvey Torriti,’ (supposedly) loosely based on the very real William King Harvey there is a blending of the two. The Sorcerer is one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever come across in the espionage (reading) world. Let’s just say it’s probably as well he wasn’t alive at the time of publication, or that Littell felt he could adequately defend the ‘loosely based on’ part at the time of publication.

What Robert Littell does exceptionally well, is this blurring of fact and fiction. Real characters and events and those he has invented. And real events with invented characters. My knowledge of the early events featured – the Hungarian Revolution and subsequent Soviet invasion, in 1956, The Bay of Pigs invasion, RFK’s assassination –  and of course, their unfolding from the American’s angle, is patchy to say the least. It’s a measure of the quality of the writing and plotting that, without looking it up, you’re hard pressed to tell which are the real characters and which are his inventions. and then there’s the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland symbolism…

It can’t be bang up to date, as since the end of the cold war, and even the West’s excursions into Afghanistan and the Middle East, the spy scene has changed out of all recognition. It changes every day. The majority of characters in the book’s hey-day period, would simply not recognise a spy or the spying world nowadays. So the book is in reality, or can only ever be, a nostalgic look back at the formation of the modern Black Arts, the Great Game, that is today. Though, the premise is as real now as it was then, to know more about your ‘enemy’ than they know about you. You might read this and smile and shake your head a little while reading about some of the main period and methods of the people here, but they are how we got where we are today. And anyway, this is my sort of book, I think it is superb, wish I had enough money to get my memory of reading it again removed, and could read it again for the first time.

For a book weighing in at around 900-odd pages – and a couple of kilograms – I could well imagine lesser bloggers reaching immediately for epithets like ‘rambling’ and ‘sprawling,’ but it most certainly isn’t. It is superbly planned, intricately plotted and generally tighter than a camel’s arse in a sandstorm. It’ll have you glued to each and every page, going back and forth to make sure you’ve got who has just done what to someone you thought was on their ‘side.’ The only other 800+ page novels I’ve got to the end of and thought they were too short, is Greg Iles’ Natches Burning trilogy.

If this isn’t the best spy book I’ve ever read, I want to know why!

*Of course, if that were true, I’d have stopped after that first sentence.

You can buy The Company from The Book Depository
Get the version I’ve linked to and pictured at the top. It’s a holdable size and won’t crack the spine like the smaller versions there are (I got one off eBay that was way too small, and found the above version there on The Book Depository).

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