Monday, March 3, 2014

Legends: A Novel of DissimulationLegends: A Novel of Dissimulation by Robert Littell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Robert Littell's "Legends" is a pleasantly offbeat spy novel. It aspires to a degree of depth by attempting to investigate psychological effects of assuming different identities for different undercover assignments, but despite the pretentious subtitle "A novel of dissimulation", it does not quite work. The title word, 'legends', refers to fictitious life histories made up for an operative of a spy agency when preparing for a mission.

Martin Odum is a private detective in Brooklyn, who - in his earlier incarnations as a CIA agent - might have been Dante Pippen, an Irish specialist on explosives, and Lincoln Dittmann, a college history professor and a Civil War expert. Or maybe these are three different people? Martin does not quite know.

A Russian émigré, Stella, hires Martin in Brooklyn to find her sister's missing husband. The case takes Martin (and maybe also Dante and Lincoln) to such places as Israel, Prague in the Czech Republic, an island on the Aral Sea, banks of river Neman in Lithuania, and Moscow, Russia. This current-time (1997) plot thread is interleaved with various stories from Martin's, Dante's, and Lincoln's past. The stories are set in the 1987 - 1997 period and we travel to a Palestinian training camp in a Lebanese village and to the Triple Border region (where the borders of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina meet), which is the favorite meeting area of arms merchants. The book's most inspired story offers a nightmarishly vivid and sarcastically funny glimpse of the battle of Fredericksburg.

It is hard to call "Legends" a novel. It is rather a collection of stories strung together by the Martin and Stella's thread. Some stories are hilarious, for instance, the one about Saint Gedymin's bones, while others are just standard spy fare. I like the juxtaposition of the explosive limb dispersal motif and the artificial limb distribution theme. If one skips the psychological pretense and occasionally boring stories, "Legends" is a good read.

Three stars.

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