Sweet Reason

Title:                      Sweet Reason

Author:                 Robert Littell

Littell, Robert (1974). Sweet Reason. Boston, Houghton Mifflin

LCCN:    73012079

PZ4.L772 Sw3

Date Updated:  February 16, 2016

This is NOT a spy novel. It is a novel about war, and about leadership in war and about supply, messed up operations, and how many ways there are to get it wrong. I include it in this blog of spy fiction because it relates so well to so many issues in intelligence and because it’s written by Robert Littell. It reminds me of The Caine Mutiny in some ways (particularly the leadership of the captain of the Ebersole) and in some ways Mr. Roberts (again, a really messed-up ship.) I finished reading it February 15, 2016


Let it prevail. . . . This is a very different kind of book from the also superior The Defection of A. J. Lewinter taking place aboard the Ebersole, a destroyer uninspected for years—“an ancient mariner living on borrowed time”—during the Vietnam war. The story, a mishmash (did you say MASH?) of random episodes aboard her (from the unfortunate visitation of a Congressman who wants to record something more memorable on film besides standing in the chow line—say firing at any old coastline target) mostly deals with the attempt to isolate the anonymous author of some leaflets signed Sweet Reason which question the validity of the war and usually provoke some disturbing episodes, i.e. errors, like raising the flag upside down. But then there’s the personnel: from Captain Jones in his spit-shined non-regulation Adler elevators who collects barbed wire and whose whole life (wife—children) has gone by default: or the Shrink, an unconventional fellow called Wallowitch who asks unconventional questions of the Chaplain—“Does God have sperm?”; or particularly and especially the Poet, the most innocent or wisest of all, who keeps photos of My Lai over his bunk and is told to hang up some “clean tit pictures.” Littell has an attractive rogue comic talent to disguise the fact that what he is writing about so sharply and seriously is war and, in particular, the most gratuitous one of all.

[1] A Kirkus review, downloaded January 28, 2016


The Stalin Epigram

Title:                      The Stalin Epigram

Author:                 Robert Littell

Littell, Robert (2009). The Stalin Epigram. New York: Simon & Schuster

LCCN:    2008052277

PS3562.I7827 S73 2009


Date Posted:      December 11, 2015


Littell adapts the unhappy story of iconic Russian poet Osip Mandelstam to deliver another of his chilling portraits of bureaucracy gone mad.

It’s 1934, and Stalin’s secret police are on a tear in Moscow. No one, no matter how intrinsically law-abiding, is arrest-proof. That’s because it’s hard to abide by laws that can change in a blink and often as not turn out to be state secrets anyway. “Is there anything that’s not a state secret?” the poet Anna Akhmatova asks an agent of the dreaded Cheka. Most assuredly, comes the ready reply, “But what’s not a state secret is a state secret.” Plunged deep into this bureaucratic nightmare, the artistically brilliant, politically naïve Mandelstam at first tries to cope. But the fact that he’s now forbidden to publish torments him; it’s a hammer blow to the poet’s very reason for being. Against the advice—more accurately, the pleading—of his wife, friends and colleagues, he composes and publicly declaims an inflammatory, eventually infamous 16-line epigram that characterizes Stalin as a murderer, then describes the Soviet leader’s “cockroach whiskers” and fingers “fat as grubs.” Mandelstam might as well have requested a summons to Lubyanka Prison, of course, and in short order that’s where he finds himself residing. Not surprisingly, unrelenting assaults on the poet’s body and spirit break him. Convinced on a daily basis that a bullet to the back of his head must be his fate, Mandelstam somehow manages to escape actual execution, but the poet in him is less fortunate. In the meantime, Stalin’s dictum that everyone is guilty of something remains in force, packing the prisons while thinning the post-Revolution population.

Firmly in the tradition of Orwell, Kafka and Koestler—and equally harrowing.

The Defection of A. J. Lewinter

Title:                      The Defection of A. J. Lewinter

Author:                 Robert Littell

Littell, Robert (1973). The Defection of A. J. Lewinter. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin

LCCN:    72005220

PZ4.L772 De

Date Updated:  January 11, 2016


  1. J. Lewinter, a balding (in spite of the twelve bottles of Head & Shoulders he takes with him) ceramics engineer (nose cones), crosses over to Russia and it seems impossible to believe the USSR would take him in—he hasn’t that much to offer. Nor does his explanation, fear or a preemptive nuclear war on the part of the U.S., seem very urgent. His older and newer compatriots attempt to process the either/or, true/false/positive/negative factors via all kinds of dossier data, transcripts and checks and among them you’ll find a KGB representative, a grandmaster, the CIA’s Leo Diamond who’s as adamantine as his name, and his Sarah, a “glutton for experience” but not the kind she’s going to get. Littell’s first in this category is politically sophisticated, literate and versatile in its range and you’ll want to authorize it instantly as bright entertainment.


Robert Littell (born January 8, 1935) is an American novelist and journalist who resides in France. He specializes in spy novels that often concern the CIA and the Soviet Union.

Littell was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Jewish family, of Russian Jewish origin. He is a 1956 graduate of Alfred University in western New York. He spent four years in the U.S. Navy and served at times as his ship’s navigator, antisubmarine warfare officer, communications officer, and deck watch officer.

Later Littell became a journalist and worked many years for Newsweek during the Cold War. He was a foreign correspondent for the magazine from 1965 to 1970. His spy novels are:


  • The Defection of A. J. Lewinter (1973)
  • Littell, Robert (1974). Sweet Reason. Boston, Houghton Mifflin
  • Littell, Robert (1975). The October Circle. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Mother Russia (1978)
  • Littell, Robert (1978). Mother Russia. London: Hutchinson
  • Littell, Robert (1979). The Debriefing. New York: Harper & Row
  • Littell, Robert (1981, 2003). The Amateur. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press
  • Littell, Robert (1986). The Sisters. New York: Bantam Books
  • Littell, Robert (1988). The Revolutionist. New York : Bantam Books
  • The Once and Future Spy (1990)
  • An Agent in Place (1991)
  • The Visiting Professor (1994)
  • Walking Back the Cat (1997)
  • Littell, Robert (2002). The Company: A Novel of the CIA. New York: Overlook Press.
  • Legends (2005)
  • Vicious Circle (2006)
  • Littell, Robert (2009). The Stalin Epigram. New York: Simon & Schuster
  • Young Philby (2012)


Young Philby

Title:                      Young Philby

Author:                Robert Littell

Littell, Robert (2012). Young Philby. New York: Thomas Dunne Books

LCCN:    2012035373

PS3562.I7827 Y68 2012


Date Updated:       March 19, 2016

Reviewed by Bruce van Voorst [1]

There existed an entire generation of British intellectuals who became disenchanted with the ruling classes after the Great War, and who started to doubt the capitalist fairy tale of the ever-expanding pie when the unemployment soared in the wake of the crash of ‘29, who gravitated toward Marx’s analysis of the inevitable decline of industrial capitalism, who with the rise of Hitler in Germany came to see the Soviet Union as the bulwark against Fascism.[2]

In the pantheon of international espionage, no name burns brighter than that of Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby—and with every justification. No other spy in history was so successful in wreaking devastation on the intelligence services of two super-powers he supposedly served for thirty years, the British SIS and the American CIA. Before, during, and after World War II Philby served his Soviet masters, passing to them everything of value. Philby revealed the super-secret Operation VENONA, an extraordinarily productive allied communications intercept operation which had detected the Rosenberg Manhattan Project spying and revealed many other Soviet spies at the top of the US government-contributing to the public hysteria of the calamitous McCarthy era red scare hysteria which arguably did as much damage to America as some of the spying. Elizabeth Bentley was an important courier in NKVD operations in America and knew the names of dozens of Soviet spies. Philby told the Soviets that Bentley had defected to the FBI, which allowed the NKVD to put a network of 541 agents in the US on ice, with the result there were no convictions of more than 89 persons on her list. So serious was this, writes Allen Weinstein in The Haunted Wood[3], a survey of Soviet espionage in America during the Stalin era, that serious consideration was given to assassinating her. Philby’s treachery condemned dozens, perhaps hundreds, to their death. In 1945 he foiled the imminent defection of Konstantin Volkov, a senior KGB official under diplomatic cover in Turkey who would have revealed Philby as a traitor, who was arrested and put sedated aboard a plane to Moscow for certain execution, wrapped so tightly in bandages he couldn’t speak. It’s hard to believe that this Benedict Arnold was on track to become “C,’’ head of British intelligence. Little wonder that the SVR, the successor to the KGB, recently placed a plaque in its Moscow headquarters to honor Philby as its greatest spy.

A good deal of Philby’s intelligence activities is in the extensive public record-both fact and fiction. Nigel West’s classic The Crown Jewels[4] is very useful as an overview of Soviet spying in the West. Genrikh Borovik’s ThePhilby Files[5], though dated, offers considerable insight into the case. What remains, however, after this torrent of words is the enigma of what made Kim Philby tick. How could this product of upper-class England, Cambridge, the very best contacts, commit such treachery. Who was this person who sent scores to their death, yet said of himself that he couldn’t abide violence and once threw up at the sight of blood?

New York Times best-selling espionage fiction author Littell offers his imaginative rendition of what might have motivated Philby in his latest of sixteen intelligence novels[6], Young Philby. In twenty separate personal vignettes, Littell depicts Philby through the eyes of people who knew him—his Cambridge University chums (and later espionage collaborators), wives and lovers, and especially persons East and West whom he dealt with in the intelligence world.

Littell was a distinguished writer for Newsweek before turning to fiction and this shows in his finely crafted literary style, especially the many intensely emotional personal passages displaying profound psychological insight. One can almost weep in an opening scene reading the Lubyanka prison kangaroo court interrogations of a former London Rezident, only minutes before execution, a man of impeccable loyalty and service who conceived the brilliant operation, recruitment of Cambridge and Oxford communists headed for senior positions in the British government. Or wince at the brutality of Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss’ 1933 crushing of the workers revolution in Vienna, soldiers mowing down 1,500 outgunned workers while tanks ground through their flimsy furniture and rubber tire barricades. Or chuckle at the disconcerting exchanges as when, applying for a job at SIS, a seventy-something spinster asks Philby of his wife, “Do you sleep together? Do you copulate?”

Littell creates deeply poignant tension with a scene in Stalin’s presence where Elena Modrzhinskaya, a brilliant woman NKVD specialist on the Philby case, details her suspicions why he is a double agent. Littell turns this exchange on its head, and Stalin rejects her argument outright; the poor woman is immediately executed. Irony is that Stalin, in fact, long had his own doubts about Philby, in part because Kim never confirmed any British agents operating in the Soviet Union. Problem was that, in truth, there weren’t any.

Philby is widely considered the key man in the “Cambridge Five” group, each of whom served Soviet intelligence—without any financial reward-to fight fascism, and then support the Soviet Union. These are marvelously gifted characters, sufficiently brilliant to consider themselves the best and the brightest of the university, and all of whom rose to senior positions in the Foreign Service or intelligence service. Donald Maclean (whom insiders consider the most valuable of the Five in terms of political information delivered to the Soviets) an outstanding foreign service officer whose career survived even though he was recalled from Cairo for drunkenness. Guy Burgess, despite the fact he delighted in flaunting his homosexuality, flourished largely because of his coruscating intelligence. Deeper in the background is Anthony Blunt, an art historian who may have recruited some of the others and possibly betrayed the extremely sensitive ULTRA/ENIGMA decryption program of German radio traffic. And then there’s John Cairncross, who wrote of his experiences but whose role remains murky, though it may have been far more important than generally realized. It’s worth noting how building a spying group stemming from such close friends violates every known practice in the manuals. Littell takes pains to describe the steps Philby takes to dissociate himself from his communist party membership.

Philby proved amazingly adept at heading off official suspicions. Even as Philby’s spy walls were tum-bling, Foreign Secretary Harold MacMillan affirmed his support for him. The walls, of course, eventually collapsed. MacLean and Burgess were forced to flee to the Soviet Union, immediately bringing Philby under suspicion. Yet he held out for a decade before decamping to Beirut and thence to the Soviet Union. Littell describes Philby, still unshaken, sailing off to the Soviet Union, his Socialist Valhalla, expecting a hero’s reception. Little did he know that in Moscow he would be denied his promised KGB Colonel’s rank and put on ice for a decade. He was no longer of use to them; welcome to the skewered world of intelligence.

Oleg Kalugin, KGB General and head of foreign counter intelligence, recalls dramatically (Spymaster[7]) his shock at his first encounter with Philby. “One of the great spies of the twentieth century” was “driven half-mad by the paranoia and idiocy of the KGB” a “bent figure” reeking of vodka. Kalugin took Philby (and some of the other Five) under his wing and engaged him in training junior KGB staffers and writing his memoires. Philby defiantly refused to see Burgess, whom he considered a traitor for defecting and bringing him under suspicion. He saw the MacLeans regularly and indeed seduced and married Donald’s wife. Ironically, at death Philby would be awarded the Order of Lenin and made Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest distinction awarded for heroic services to the Soviet state, and buried with generals. Vladimir Kryuchkov, chief of the KGB, led the delegation of high-level KGB officers in attendance.

“As a spy,” writes Littell, “the Englishman had had a bloody good run.” But Philby’s defection hardly put an end to the damage he caused. Following the Philby revelations the Special Relationship between the CIA and MI-6 fractured for a generation. In the CIA, James Angleton had become chief of counterintelligence, in charge among other things of vetting any recruitments of foreign personnel. Angleton, traumatized by the defection of his intimate friend, would henceforth trust nobody and began a reign of terror which virtually blocked the recruitment of any Soviet or Soviet bloc sources, blinding US intelligence in those areas. Within the .CIA, Angleton’s crusade led to the destruction of the careers-and, in effect, lives-of a dozen or more senior Russian staffers. Yuri Modin, Philby’s case officer in Moscow, says (My Five Cambridge Friends[8]) that Philby thought Angleton was “off his head.” Christopher Andrew (Defend the Realm[9]) writes that Angleton became “lost in a conspiratorial wilderness of mirrors from which he was never able to escape.” In the end, the treachery of a single Englishman had paralyzed two intelligence services for more than a decade. Little wonder Philby’s name hangs proudly on the walls of the Russian intelligence system. And with Young Phi!by no wonder Robert Littell’s name hangs next to the greatest contemporary writers of his genre, alongside John le Carré, Tom Clancy, and Alan Furst.

[1] Van Voorst, Bruce, in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, pp. 102-104) Bruce van Voorst is a former CIA clandestine services officer and correspondent for Time and Newsweek. He is a longtime member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO).

[2] Young Philby

[3] Weinstein, Allen (1999) and Alexander Vassiliev. The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America – The Stalin Era. New York: Random House

[4] West, Nigel (1999) and Tsarev, Oleg. The Crown Jewels: The British Secrets at the Heart of the KGB Archives. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

[5] Borovik, Genrikh (1994) with Philip Knightly, eds. Philby Files: The Secret Life of a Master Spy Kim Philby. London: Little, Brown

[6] At the time of writing this review (2013) this is a correct statement. Since, Littell has written A Nasty Piece of Work, a PI novel, not his usual genre.

[7] Kalugin, Oleg (2009). Spymaster: My Thirty-Two Years in Intelligence And Espionage Against The West. New York: Basic Books

[8] Modin, Yuri (1995) with Jean-Charles Deniau and Aguieszka Ziarek. My Five Cambridge Friends. London: Farrah, Straus and Giroux

[9] Andrew, Christopher (2010). Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5. New York: Vintage Books


The Case Officer

Title:                      The Case Officer

Author:                 F. W. Rustmann, Jr.

Rustmann, F. W., Jr. The Case Officer. West Palm Beach. FL: Double Tap Books

OCLC:    837352402


·         From Somalia, to Ethiopia, to Hong Kong, to Paris, CIA case officer “Mac” MacMurphy uncovers an intricate Iranian plot to draw China into a terrorist alliance against America. But when organizational inertia within the CIA hierarchy disrupts his operational plans, he must resort to unconventional methods to achieve his goals.


·         Spy Stories

Date Posted:      December 7, 2015

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

As a reader who has been devouring spy fiction for half a century, it is with great pleasure that I report that retired CIA case officer Fred Rustmann has written a novel that rings with authenticity—a story replete with field cunning and tradecraft, a devious plot that would bring a blush to the cheeks of Machiavelli, savage office politics, and several rousing sex scenes

There is also a deep moral story: the need for CIA officers to recognize that their attempts to recruit officials of the adversary can have severe consequences for the targets, ranging from wrecking careers to death.

Rustmann’s character is Barry Stephan “Mac” MacMurphy, whose early years parallel the author’s own life in some respects—a New Yorker who became a wrestler in high school, continued the sport at Oklahoma State University, and then entered the Marine Corps. And it is as a Marine captain, in charge of security of the US Embassy in Somalia, that Mac has the first brush with the pigheadedness that seems to be all too prevalent in the US government.

Although terrorists are massing for an assault on the embassy, the ambassador orders Mac (and his marines) not to fire if they attack, but to “batten down the hatches” and await action by the State Department. The CIA station chief angrily says, “We have to either . leave or defend ourselves … That mob will hack us up like animals if we stay!” The ambassador retorts, “I will not have .any shooting in this compound, no shooting, none, and that’s final.”

Mac demurs. With a sniper rifle; a sharpshooter’s eye, and the support of the COS, he goes to the roof and begins plinking the mob’s advance. A dozen or so head shots, and the mob loses courage and scatters. (The ambassador, of course, takes credit in cables to Washington with ordering the heroic defense.) The impressed station chief persuades him to join CIA.

Fluent in Chinese, .Mac desires to work in China ops. An Agency senior counsels him to take an assignment in Africa Division, where he can go after Chinese targets in Addis Ababa. The influx of Chinese officials means “the targets are ripe and the hunting is good.” Prime recruitment targets are persons working for the government’s New China News Agency (NCNA), “who have as much access to classified information as the other officials.” And their journalistic status gives them more freedom of movement … than the others.”

Mac takes the assignment. As a case officer, over several years he becomes fast friends with Huang Tsung-yao[2], ostensibly an NCNA reporter, but in fact an intelligence operative for the Ministry of State Security (MSS). Agency superiors pressure Mac to make a recruiting pitch to Huang. He declines. He realizes his friend would reject such a proposal; further, loyal officer that he is, he would report the overture to the MSS—thus fingering himself as someone the CIA considered capable of treason. Such is exactly what happens: a reluctant Mac makes the pitch, and within day·Huang is recalled to China and given meaningless work.

Segue forward a decade, when the Agency picks up hints that China and Iran are planning some sort of deal involving enormous amounts of money. And here is where Fred Rustmann draws upon his decades of experience in CIA’s clandestine service to craft a story that likely had a modified counterpart in real life.

Briefly, Huang has survived his period of disgrace and ended up in Paris, involved in the cloudy deal with Iran. Agency superiors, including the DCI and the Paris COS, press Mac to make another recruitment pitch. He resists, and comes up with a counter plan: bug Huang’s embassy office in the hope that the needed information can be gleaned from overheard conversations.

What follows is a how-to manual that shows how a case officer goes about organizing· an operation—from arranging clandestine meetings with contract assets, avoiding surveillance, and arranging an “audio penetration,” a polite euphemism for bugging an adversary.

As a reviewer, I prefer not to reveal too many details of a thriller. Permit one teaser. The Chinese embassy abutted an apartment building, and Huang’s office shared a common wall with the residence of a elderly woman and her “unmarried but not unattractive daughter,” Colette. Mac immediately thought of Francois, a playboy and a Paris station contract asset who delighted in the occasional odd job.

Mac tasks him with getting the women out of the apartment for a long weekend so that he and technicians could drill through the wall and install the bug. The suave Francois “accidentally” meets Colette in a neighborhood cafe, She shows up for their first dinner date clad in a pretty new dress, cut low to display her ample assets. In short order, both women agree to a weekend on the French Riveria [sic, Goulden obviously means “Riviera”], allowing Mac and the technical team do their bugging work. To their astonishment, what they overhear is Huang and an associate opening boxes, counting out 50 million Euros, and stashing them in a safe.

And that is all I am going to tell you. Suffice to say that The Case Officer is a book that warrants a five-cloak, five-dagger rating.

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, pp. ) Joseph C. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times and other publications. Most of the reviews [from The Intelligencer, reproduced in this blog] appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times. Joe Goulden’s recent book is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications

[2] It is unfortunate that Goulden uses the Wade-Giles (and I suppose that Rustmann, too, probably pretty good in Chinese) instead of pinyin to spell out Chinese names. Today’s operatives would certainly use what is much more common in China.