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The Company by Robert Littell

historical fiction, Overlook Press,  (hardback), 2002, 894 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

There's something oxymoronic about the notion that certain human activities can have a proper history, that is, an accurate account of the enabling grisly essential details.  Novels like QUEST FOR FIRE and THE INHERITORS are better roadmaps to human prehistory than are conventional physical anthropology texts.  Works of the imagination like CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM EATER and NAKED LUNCH more closely reflect the drug experience than do the writings of Harvard neurophysiologists.  TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY and HARLOT'S GHOST capture the convoluted realities of espionage tradecraft much more accurately than dry, sanitized, agency histories penned by semi-retired spooks.

Into the espionage fray jumps former Newsweek journalist Robert Littell, who has written earlier spy thrillers, though never on this scale.  THE COMPANY is his bid for LeCarre glory, a long multigenerational epic of the CIA from its inception at World War II's end to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.  Littell introduces us to a bevy of fictional cold warriors, scheming, unflappable patriots who operated in Berlin and Vienna during the uneasy postwar occupation.  These stalwarts (all men of course, given the times) move with ease from the ashes of Germany to the Bay of Pigs and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, to Vietnam and Afghanistan and any other global hot spot that threatens America's perceived interests.  These
fictional characters are the anonymous pawns in the grand chess game being played by yet another set of characters, real life personages like Allen Dulles and Richard Helms, William Colby and JFK, Yuri Andropov and Vladimir Putin, who guide the intelligence efforts of their respective countries.  The frontline operatives exhibit bravery and ingenuity, yet nothing seems to
work out quite as they had planned.

This is the point at which a novel can provide a more plausible history than the sketchy official record affords.  Two real life figures who worked in the shadows of intelligence greatly influenced the course of Cold War history, but their feats will always remain official secrets, their names never intended to become familiar to the public.  Englishman Kim Philby and American James Jesus Angleton were close friends after World War II and headed up their respective country's counter-intelligence services.  Philby was covertly an agent of the Soviet Union during his time in MI-6, placed in a perfect position to alert the Soviets to the West's plans.  His friend Angleton never suspected this until Philby's world started falling apart, and Angleton became persuaded from hints that Philby had dropped that the American CIA had been penetrated by infiltrating "moles."  Angleton was tasked with smoking out any moles within the agency, and as such, had extraordinary freedom from supervision, because one never knew which supervisor might become a suspect.  As internal affairs cop, Angleton could make no real friends nor possess an institutional history.  Angleton's sense of betrayal when Philby's perfidy became known twisted him into a delusional paranoiac of increasing instability and drove him to destroy the careers of some of the most dedicated operatives the CIA had ever developed.

Angleton became a shadow Joe McCarthy, stalking communists long after the senator from Wisconsin had been exposed by the glare of public scrutiny.  His dedication (some would say paranoid obsession) destroyed the lives of innocent agents and also exposed shocking intelligence vulnerabilities, all depicted in the fates of the various fictional characters that THE COMPANY has carried from 1945 into the present.  A book I had reviewed earlier in this series (THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE CIA by Joseph Trento) attempts to tell this same story as a nonfiction narrative, but is reduced to speculation on many key points, as CIA secrecy still reigns.  By using its fictional characters wisely, THE COMPANY completes the picture that THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE CIA was trying to describe.    It also depicts an era of American covert action that has pretty well been transformed by the crush

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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