The 1p Book Review – Robert Littell: The Defection of AJ Lewinter

Mark Pack does his best to avoid thinking about how many blog pieces he writes and how many chocolate pieces he eats. Blogging is usually at his own site and Liberal Democrat Voice, which he co-edits. Chocolate is usually milk, preferably with crunchy bits. When doing neither he used to be Head of Innovations at the Liberal Democrats (running the internet general election campaign in 2001 and 2005) and is now Head of Digital at MHP Communications. He is, and forever will be, one year older than email.

Cold War espionage novels make for a crowded field and one in which the elegant conversations of The Defection of AJ Lewinter (1p from here)have been unjustly forgotten. In part that may well be because the book elegantly builds to a fantastic last line – but a last line that one cannot really retell without giving away the whole book. Nor can one really appreciate the full stylish grace of the plot’s construction until it is capped by that last line.

As a result, there is little of the plot that a reviewer who respects yet-to-be readers of the book can say of the plot other than, “Trust me, it’s worth the read” or a brief account that makes the book sound much like dozens of other novels.

That would be to miss its charm. What can be said is that the different quality of this espionage thriller is reflected in there being but one death in this thriller – a death that is all the more shocking for the book’s understated tone. It is also a book in which the characters talk and talk and talk. There is a plot and there is action, but this is a thriller that would never make it as a Hollywood action epic.

There are traces too of black humour too as a Cold War defection leaves both sides unsure as to whether they are the real loser from the switch and where the truth lies. AJ Lewinter is a physicist who has done military research and then, on a trip to Tokyo, defects to the Soviet Union. Not only the Americans but also the Soviets want to know why. For the Americans, why has he gone, what did he know and when did his loyalties end, and for the Russians, why has he come, what does he know, why did he switch – and is he a plant?

As characters mull over what may be true and what may be misdirection from the other side, thoughts of bluff, double-bluff and treble-bluff are discussed, but without the plot every spiralling into implausible complexity. Littell’s prose is often sparse, using precision to paint swift pictures of characters before getting into the main business of the conversations. His description of KGB man Pogodin is particularly fine: “one-quarter Marxist, one-quarter humanist, and one-half bureaucrat”.

That is the beauty of Littell’s writing – a simple set-up with a simple dilemma, yet complexity and ambiguity spirals away as people’s thoughts, rather than implausible plot twists, add to the uncertainty and make the situation twist and turn. It is a book that pleases with its swish cleverness, not with pulse-quickening moments of action. It is an unconventional masterpiece.

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About Author Profile: Mark Pack

Mark Pack is a public relations expert, blogger and leading Liberal Democrat commentator. His website is here.

10 thoughts on “The 1p Book Review – Robert Littell: The Defection of AJ Lewinter

  1. Worm
    March 9, 2011 at 13:44

    that sounds brilliant Mark, even though I must confess that I have never in my adult life read a thriller or even a spy novel! Inspired by my current addiction to The killing on BBC4 I am thinking of dipping my toe in the water – I may start with this one!!

    March 9, 2011 at 14:33

    I must correct you there Worm, when you say you’ve never read a spy thriller, as you clearly read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Bonk

    Another excellent first spy novel would be Le Carre’s first classic, ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’. Decent film of that too, with Richard Burton.

    March 9, 2011 at 17:54

    Worm: Hope you do fall prey to temptation and give the book a try!

    Ian Buxton
    March 9, 2011 at 17:59

    OK, I’m convinced. £2.80 P&P though…it had better be worth it
    Do we do smilies on The Dabbler, or is this some frightful breach of site etiquette?

    March 9, 2011 at 19:09

    Smilies are pushing it, Ian, and we draw the line at ‘OMG’s.

  6. Gaw
    March 9, 2011 at 20:28

    Tempting review, Mark. In fact, I concur totally with what worm said.

    March 10, 2011 at 00:12

    I will try it too – or possibly see if I can get an unabridged audio version. I don’t read thrillers and spy novels but I like listening to them while I clean under the fridge.

    While on the subject of site etiquette, what’s the etiquette on lol, (lol)? I should add that I haven’t the faintest idea what lol means, but I do encounter it from time to time and stare at it, puzzled, unable to tell whether it is something I should know about or, indeed, embrace. Lol

    March 10, 2011 at 00:15

    Mark – have you tried anything else by Littell and, if so, were any of the others good? I have found a copy of The Company by him as an audio book and am wondering whether you would recommend it as well?

    Ian Buxton
    March 10, 2011 at 15:51

    Exactly how dirty does it have to be under a fridge for you to require an audio book; how long does it take to get that dirty and how long to clean it? And what’s to be found in such a domestic appliance?

    I’d put a smily face here now on any other blog but now have to content myself with LOL.

    March 12, 2011 at 09:59

    Ian, you are a very brave man to ask, but some things are really beyond words. LOL

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