Robert Littell: the game of spying with a bit of irony and humor

March 15, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, journalism, writers, writing.

Spy novelist Robert Littell has been called the American John le Carre, but there is a key difference that Sarah Weinman, in a recent review of his work for InsideHook, points out:

Where John Le Carre channeled barely suppressed rage into realist narratives steeped in bureaucracy, and Charles McCarry took the adage that “the average intelligence officer is a sort of latter-day Marcel Proust,” Littell is more ironic and mordantly funny than his spy-writing peers, poking an eye at American patriotism while mercilessly skewering Soviet cynicism. Source: The Spy Novels of Robert Littell Are Literature’s Greatest Account of the Cold War – InsideHook

Weinman says she read all 20 of Littell’s spy novels last year in preparation for the presidential election, and some of the things that impressed her most about his writing were his consistent Jewishness, irony, and humor.

Littell has been reluctant​ over the years to reveal much about his life or his writing. He was born in Brooklyn New York in 1935 and was raised in a family that valued reading and good books. His formative years had the background of the beginnings of the Cold War, a time of tension between the East and the West that easily could have resulted in the annihilation of the world. In that post-World War II era, particularly for a Jewish kid, irony was one of the tools that you used to deal with the world.

Littell joined the Navy after college when he was 21 years old, and eventually he found himself as overnight watch officer aboard a destroyer in the Mediterranean. He was also the communications officer and, as such, was the one to decipher coded messages to the ship. These messages had to be deciphered immediately after they arrived.

One night when he was off duty, he was awakened at 3 a.m. and told that there was a message that had come to the captain of the ship that he needed to decipher. The message was from the admiral of the fleet, so it had to be important.

According to Littell, the admiral’s message stated that some of the ships or maneuvering too closely to a yacht owned by actor Errol Flynn, who was on board at the time. Flynn was accompanied by a 16-year-old male companion. It seems that the Navy ships were churning up the waters around the yacht and were making both Flynn and his companion seasick. Flynn complained to the admiral of the fleet, who felt it necessary to pass that complaint on to the captains of the fleet’s ships.

The point of the story? There is always humor to be found, particularly in a bureaucracy like the United States Navy, even when the world is on the brink.

Littell writes not about the Navy but about the Central Intelligence Agency and other bureaucracies charged with protecting the United States, and while the humor may not be as obvious in those organizations, it is very much present.

After four years in the Navy, Littell went to graduate school with the goal of becoming a teacher like his father. Toward the end of his program, he decided he wanted to be something else. So he quit and went to work for a small newspaper in New Jersey. He was hired by United Press International, a major news wire service of the time, and became a foreign correspondent for that agency. He spent his most productive journalistic years writing for Newsweek magazine covering the front lines of the Cold War in Eastern Europe.

By the early 1970s, Littell had decided to leave journalism and try his hand at writing novels. He remained in Europe with his wife and two children and was not far from bankruptcy when his first novel, The Defection of A.J. Lewinter, was published in 1973. That novel, which was rejected by several publishers, won the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger award, made the New York Times bestseller list, and put Littell’s novel-writing career on a solid path that he is followed ever since.

His latest novel, Comrade Koba, was published in 2019. He is 86 years old, still living in Europe, and as far as we know (and hope) still writing.


In 2006, Ali Karim conducted an extensive interview with Robert Littell that is the source for much of this post. That interview can be found here:…

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