Samantha's Reviews > The Once and Future Spy

The Once and Future Spy by Robert Littell
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's review
Nov 11, 2010

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bookshelves: spy-novels

** spoiler alert ** It's been hit or miss for me with Littell's books. I loved The Company, didn't even finish The Debriefing, and liked, but didn't love, this one, The Once and Future Spy.

In terms of writing, Littell shines. I really like the way he tells a story (for the most part), introducing vivid and interesting characters who have real and believable flaws and who, of course, have secrets of their own they're desperate to keep hidden.

The hero of The Once and Future Spy is a man named Silas Sibley, known as the Weeder because of his talent for weeding through documents to find information. As a prank and out of revenge for a college-era wrong, he eavesdrops on a man named Wanamaker, the man in charge of a secret group planning to detonate an atom bomb inside an Iranian university in order to bring the Iranians to heel. The Weeder discovers this plot, and believing himself a patriot like his ancestor Nathan Hale - the Revolutionary War spy of "I regret I have but one life to give for my country" fame - sets out to thwart Wanamaker's plans.

Of course, Wanamaker takes action when he discovers the leak and brings in a man named Admiral Toothacher, a fastidious and brilliant man with a secret, to find out who it is. Which he does. Which then leads to a lot more trouble than any of them bargained for.

A large portion of the book is devoted to the Weeder's research. He's writing an account of the missing week between when Nathan Hale set off as a spy at General Washington's request and when he was captured by the British and subsequently hanged. At first glance, the narrative seems out of place, but the more we learn about the Weeder, the more we see the parallels. Like his ancestor, the Weeder believes in country and duty above all else, which leads him down the path he eventually travels, his own actions very closely mimicking Hale's own, as put forth in the Weeder's narrative. Whether he eventually suffers the same fate as Hale is left open-ended, because just when you think the Weeder's won, there's another wrench thrown into the mix.

As a history buff, I really enjoyed the bits about Nathan Hale, even if they weren't true. As a fan of spy novels, I really enjoyed the tightly woven, complex plot. There were parts that I thought were a little over the top (the three assassination attempts on the Weeder, for instance) and I never quite warmed to the character of Snow despite her necessity to the plot. Not only was she the equivalent of the Molly Davis character in the Weeder's Hale narrative (yet another parallel), she was also instrumental in the final events of the book. I would have liked to know more about her.

All in all, a good quick read with a driving plot and solid writing. Littell is definitely high on the list of good spy fiction writers.

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