Cold War espionage novels make for a crowded field and one in which the elegant conversations of The Defection of AJ Lewinter has 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, reminiscent of Anthony Price at his very best. 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.