I have been on a Robert Littell reading binge lately and have become quite a fan. He ranks right up there with John le Carre, Ken Follett and Len Deighton when it comes to well written, original, intelligent espionage thrillers. I also enjoy Littell's use of irony and his dry sense of humor.
Charlie Heller is a quiet, unassuming man with a quiet, unassuming job in a back office of a large corporation. He is a crack cryptographer for the CIA - The Company. Since his boyhood he has been fascinated with untangling codes and he considers himself fortunate that he is able to pay the rent by doing a job that he so enjoys. As an added attraction, he gets to use the CIA's super-sophisticated computer, with which he pursues his hobby. Heller is a Shakespeare "denialist" and searches all of the great bard's works trying to find a cryptogram which will reveal their true author. So, with a well paid job, an unusual and most interesting hobby, and the love of a wonderful woman, his beloved fiancee Sarah Diamond, Charlie Heller is a happy man.
Unfortunately, Sarah is brutally murdered by terrorists in a surprise attack at the American Embassy in West Germany. (The novel is set in the 1970s). Charlie, informed of the news by his sympathetic superiors, is bereft. His feelings of loss and subsequent depression are clearly portrayed by Littell, as is the terrible bitterness he feels when he learns that The Company will not pursue the terrorists who committed the crime, even though their identity and location is known. They are behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia. Heller becomes driven by a need for revenge, which his Company psychiatrist notes is "very therapeutic." With his back against the wall, Heller manages to manipulate the masters of manipulation and move toward his goal of assassinating the terrorists responsible for Sarah's death. He is an amateur - "someone who thinks that if something is worth doing, it may be worth doing badly" - working against some of the best people in the field of espionage and assassination. And they all want to take Heller out with extreme prejudice.
This book is a real page turner. I could not put it down. Heller is an extremely well developed character and his motivation and talents are well thought-out and make perfect sense in the storyline. The minor characters are also terrific. His Czech contact is a brilliant addition to the plot and her constant malaprops bring much needed comic relief to many taut, tense situations. If you enjoy this book, you may want to check-out Robert Littell's "The Company." It is another excellent novel. Happy reading.