As a rule, I don’t like espionage novels. The prose tends to be humorless, the techno babble incomprehensible, and the characters mostly flat and cliché-ridden. Often, the heroes of such novels are, in the words of Raymond Chandler, a little boy’s idea of a tough guy. Most of them read like warmed-over James Bond. However, I just finished the novel Legends, by Robert Littel, and am ready to give it a whole-hearted recommendation. Littel is a former naval officer and journalist highly regarded by aficionados of spy fiction, and if this book is any indication of his usual caliber, I can see why.
The story begins in 1993 with the brutal execution of a spy in a remote Russian village. It then jumps to 1997 where we are introduced to Martin Odum, a former CIA agent making his living as a private investigator in New York. A survivor of scores of missions under several false identities (“legend” is the agency term for a false identity) Martin is not entirely sure which of his legends is his true identity. He is approached by Stella, a young woman of Russian-Israeli descent to find her sister’s missing husband in order to obtain a divorce that is recognized by Jewish law, thus allowing Stella’s sister to re-marry. Initially, Martin refuses the case on the grounds that he has nothing to go on. However, when his former supervisor (or “handler”) from the agency pays him an unexpected visit and warns him off of the case, Martin decides to accept Stella’s offer, as much to find out what his handler doesn’t want him to know as to help Stella and her sister.
As Martin’s investigation takes him and Stella around the world, chapter-length interludes give us background on Martin’s career with the agency and the various legends he employed in the course of his missions. The question of the hero’s true identity is always hanging over the proceedings: Is he really Martin Odum? Or is he Lincoln Dittman, historian, weapons expert, and arms dealer? Could he really be Dante Pippen, a former bomber for the IRA who now instructs terrorists in bomb building? And what does the execution at the beginning of the book have to do with Martin’s story? I am giving nothing away by telling you that the search for Stella’s brother-in-law and the resolution of Martin’s true identity are connected, but I defy you to figure it all out before the end of the book. Littel withholds no critical information, and all of the twists make sense in the end. Heavy doses of action, humor, social commentary and an entirely satisfying resolution help to make this a spy novel for people who don’t like spy novels.
Christine and I saw Talk to Me this past weekend. It’s a biopic of Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, an ex-con who became a Washington D.C. radio and television personality and civil rights activist from the 60s to the 80s. Although I never caught his shows, I remember hearing about Greene while growing up in the D.C. metro area. Greene was famous for saying exactly what he thought regardless of who he angered. One might say he was the original “shock jock.” The movie focuses on the complicated relationship between Greene and Dewey Hughes, the radio station manager who gave Greene his big break and managed his career. Highlights include the incident in prison that Greene used to obtain an early release, his efforts at obtaining an honest job, and his legendary broadcast during the D.C. riots in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Greene stayed on the air for hours pleading with the citizens of D.C. to honor King’s memory by not rioting and taking the high road of peace.
Don Cheadle stars as Greene and delivers yet another in a long line of great performances. He is one of those actors who just slides into a role without any fuss or “Hey Look At Me!” tricks. In other words, you don’t see him Acting. If you don’t recognize Cheadle’s name, you may remember having seen him as Basher, the British electronics expert in Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels; or as the lead in the excellent Hotel Rwanda, or his hilarious and frightening turn as Mouse in Devil in a Blue Dress.
Hughes is played by the unusually-named British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, a promising up-and-coming talent. I have enjoyed his work as the villain in Serenity (a great science fiction movie) and as Denzel Washington’s partner in The Inside Man.
Although very funny and moving, this is not a film for everyone, and definitely not for kids. The language is rough and the filmmakers never shy away from depicting Greene’s faults, including his drug and alcohol abuse, manipulation of others, and womanizing. However, it does a great job of conveying the desperation of a reformed criminal trying to make something of his life through legitimate means and the power in just telling the truth, about one’s self and what one sees in the world.