Martin Odum
eated by Robert Littell

In CIA-speak, a "legend" is a fake identity, complete with a highly detailed (albeit fictitious) back story, which an agent assumes when going undercover. These legends can be incredibly thorough, with each identity involving different skills, tastes and even languages spoken, backed up with planted stories in newspaper archives, falsified school records and birth certificates, and a million other tidbits guaranteed to convince the enemy that an operative is exactly who he claims to be. But what happens if the agent himself isn't sure who he is?

That's the question plaguing MARTIN ODUM, the hero in Legends (2005), the latest in an acclaimed series of spy thrillers from Robert Littell (The Amateur, The Company). Odum isn't sure whether he's really Odum, or if that's merely another legend. Is he actually a former CIA agent-turned-slacker private eye, who lives in an apartment over a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn and keeps bees on the roof? Or is he really Lincoln Dittman, a disgraced history professor and arms dealer? Or maybe he's Dante Pippen, an Irish Republican Army explosives expert peddling his skills to the highest bidder? Or is he none of the above? Or, maybe, all of the above?

In the meantime, Martin's hired by Russian immigrant Stella Kastner to locate Samat Ugor-Zhilov, her missing brother-in-law, last seen in Israel, so that her sister, an Orthodox Jew, can get a divorce under Jewish law. For Martin, still troubled by questions of his identity, and whose recent cases haven't been exactly intriguing (lost dogs and mahjongg debts, anyone?), it's definitely a change of pace.

But the quest for the missing hubby (who may or may not be an ex-KGB agent, or possibly a criminal mastermind) takes our man Odum a little further than he'd expected to go--not just to Israel but also to London, Prague, Russia and deep into his own murky past. Flipping back and forth in time, and from identity to identity, Martin slowly hones in on the truth. However, every secret that's revealed uncovers another layer of deception, and it soon becomes apparent that not only is nothing in this yarn quite what it appears, but everything we learn along the way may also be a lie. (No wonder the book's subtitle is "A Novel of Dissimulation").

It's one hell of a premise, and once the story grabs hold, it's quite a ride. But that ride eventually bogs down, as Legends starts to suffer from Ludlum-itis, a storytelling weakness where you take a solid foundation, bookend it with a satisfactory ending, and then fill the space in between with as many set pieces as are required to make up the page quota. It wouldn't be as frustrating if every scene here advanced the plot somehow or was strong enough to stand on its own. But, as fascinating as some of the details are, too often one feels that Littell is merely spinning his wheels and stretching out what should be carefully wrought scenes, until everything begins to unravel.

Which is fine for Martin Odum, whose grip on reality left the station chapters ago. But I'm not sure that Littell intended for his readers to start feeling disoriented as well. And while the premise of a spy so undercover that he no longer knows who he is could have been played for dark Kafkaesque laughs, Littell's tight-lipped, sardonic prose rarely loosens up enough to unleash the book's true comic possibilities. And the few attempts at humor seem forced and out of place in a narrative that is otherwise often quite dry.

Still, as a hybrid spy/private eye novel, there's enough here to keep fans from both genres reading -- and yes, occasionally scratching their heads. It's an undeniably clever read, and the search for identity is one we can all sympathize with, but gee, I just wish that Legends were a little tighter and a little lighter in tone.

A former Newsweek reporter, Littell has been responsible for a long string of successful spy thrillers, including The Defection of A.J.Lewinter, The October Circle, Mother Russia, The Debriefing, The Sisters, The Once and Future Spy and The Company. In 2013, he even returned to the shamus game with A Nasty Piece of Work, which introduced former CIA agent Lemuel Gunn.Littell is an American who makes his home in France.


Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. A version of this review appeared in January Magazine's The Rap Sheet.

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