Get more suggestions from book critic Alan Cheuse.
Book critic Alan Cheuse calls Robert Littell's Legends, about a former CIA agent who has taken on so many false identities that his own true identity becomes uncertain, the "spy novel of the summer" in his recommendations for All Things Considered.
Excerpt: Chapter 1
They had finally gotten around to paving the seven kilometers of dirt spur connecting the village of Prigorodnaia to the four-lane Moscow-Petersburg highway. The local priest, surfacing from a week-long binge, lit beeswax tapers to Innocent of Irkutsk, the saint who in the 1720s had repaired the road to China and was now about to bring civilization to Prigorodnaia in the form of a ribbon of macadam with a freshly painted white stripe down the middle. The peasants, who had a shrewder idea of how Mother Russia functioned, thought it more likely that this evidence of progress, if that was the correct name for it, was somehow related to the purchase, several months earlier, of the late and little lamented Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria's sprawling wooden dacha by a man identified only as the Oligarkh. Next to nothing was known about him. He came and went at odd hours in a glistening black Mercedes S-600 sedan, his shock of silver hair and dark glasses a fleeting apparition behind its tinted windows. A local woman hired to do laundry was said to have seen him angrily flick cigar ashes from the crow's-nest rising like a turret from the dacha before turning back to issue instructions to someone. The woman, who was terrified of the dacha's newfangled electric washing machine and scrubbed the laundry in a shallow reach of the river, had been too far away to make out more than a few words- "Buried, that's what I want, but alive . . ." -- but they and the Oligarkh's feral tone had dispatched a chill down her spine that made her shudder every time she recounted the story. Two peasants cutting firewood on the other side of the river had caught a glimpse of the Oligarkh from a distance, struggling on aluminum crutches along the path behind his dacha that led to the dilapidated paper factory disgorging dirty white smoke from its giant stacks fourteen hours a day, six days a week, and beyond that to the village cemetery and the small Orthodox church with the faded paint peeling away from its onion domes. A pair of Borzois rollicked in the dirt ahead of the Oligarkh as he thrust one hip forward and dragged the leg after it, then repeated the movement with the other hip. Three men in Ralph Lauren jeans and telnyashki, the distinctive striped shirts that paratroopers often continued to wear after they quit the army, trailed after him, shotguns cradled in the rooks of their arms. The peasants had been sorely tempted to try for a closer look at the stubby, hunch-shouldered newcomer to their village, but abandoned the idea when one of them reminded the other what the Metropolitan come from Moscow to celebrate Orthodox Christmas two Januaries earlier had proclaimed from the ambo:
If you are stupid enough to dine with the devil, for Christ's sake use a long spoon.
The road crew, along with giant tank-treaded graders and steamrollers and trucks brimming with asphalt and crushed stone, had turned up during the night while the aurora borealis was still flickering like soundless cannon fire in the north; it didn't take much imagination to suppose a great war was being fought beyond the horizon. Casting elongated shadows in the ghostly gleam of headlights, the men pulled on tar-stiff overalls and knee-high rubber boots and set to work. By first light, with forty meters of paved road behind them, the aurora and the stars had vanished, but two planets were visible in
the moonless sky: one, Mars, directly overhead, the other, Jupiter, still dancing in the west above the low haze saturated with the amber glow of Moscow. When the lead crew reached the circular crater that had been gouged in the dirt spur the day before by a steam shovel, the foreman blew on a whistle. The machines ground to a halt.
"Why are we stopping?" one of the drivers, leaning out the cab of his steamroller, shouted impatiently through the face mask he'd improvised to filter out the sulfurous stench from the paper factory. The men, who were paid by the meter and not the hour, were anxious to keep moving forward.
"At any moment we are expecting Jesus to return to earth as a Russian czar," the foreman called back lazily. "We don't want to miss it when he comes across the river." He lit a thick Turkish cigarette from the embers of an old one and strolled down to the edge of the river that ran parallel to the road for several kilometers. It was called the Lesnia, which was the name of the dense woods it meandered through as it skirted Prigorodnaia. At 6:12 a cold sun edged above the trees and began to burn off the mustard-thick September haze that clung to the river, which was in flood, creating a margin of shallow marshes on either side; long blades of grass could be seen undulating in the current.
The fisherman's dinghy that materialized out of the haze couldn't make it as far as the shore and the three occupants were obliged to climb out and wade the rest of the way. The two men wearing paratrooper shirts pulled off their boots and socks and rolled their jeans up to their knees. The third occupant didn't have to. He was stark naked. A crown of thorns, with blood trickling where the skin had been torn, sat on his head. A large safety pin attached to a fragment of cardboard had been passed through the flesh between his shoulder blades; on the cardboard was printed: "The spy Kafkor." The prisoner, his wrists and elbows bound behind him with a length of electrical wire, had several weeks growth of matted beard on his face, and purple bruises and what looked like cigarette burns over his emaciated body. Stepping cautiously through the slime until he reached solid ground, looking disoriented, he regarded his image in the shallow water of the river while the paratroopers dried their feet with an old shirt, then pulled on their socks and boots and rolled down their pants.
The spy Kafkor didn't appear to recognize the figure gaping at him from the surface of the river.
By now the two dozen crewmen, mesmerized by the arrival of the three figures, had abandoned all interest in road work. Drivers swung out of their cabs, the men with rakes or shovels stood around shifting their weight from one foot to the other in discomfort. No one doubted that something dreadful was about to happen to the naked Christ, who was being prodded up the incline by the paratroopers. Nor did they doubt that they were meant to witness it and spread the story. Such things happened all the time in Russia these days.
Back on the stretch of freshly paved road, the team's ironmonger wiped his sweaty palms on his thick leather apron, then retrieved a lunch box from the bullock-cart piled with welding gear and scrambled up the slope to get a better view of the proceedings. The ironmonger, who was short and husky and wearing tinted steel-rimmed
eyeglasses, flicked open the lid of the lunch box and reached into it to activate the hidden camera set up to shoot through a puncture in the bottom of a thermos. Casually balancing the thermos on his knees, he began to rotate the cap and snap photographs. Below, the prisoner, suddenly aware that every member of the road crew was gazing at him, seemed more distressed by his nakedness than his plight-until he caught sight of the crater. It was roughly the size of a large tractor tire. Thick planks were stacked on the ground next to it. He froze in his tracks and the paratroopers had to grasp him by the upper arms and drag him the last few meters. The prisoner sank to his knees at the lip of the crater and looked back at the workers, his eyes hollow with terror, his mouth open and gulping air with rattling gasps through a parched throat. He saw things he recognized but his brain, befuddled with chemicals released by fear, couldn't locate the words to describe them: the twin stacks spewing plumes of dirty white smoke, the abandoned custom's station with a faded red star painted above the door, the line of white-washed bee hives on a slope near a copse of stunted apple trees. This was all a terrible dream, he thought.
Any moment now he would become too frightened to continue dreaming; would force himself through the membrane that separated sleep from wakefulness and wipe the sweat from his brow and, still under the spell of the nightmare, have trouble falling back to sleep. But the ground felt damp and cold under his knees and a whiff of sulfurous air stung his lungs and the cold sun playing on his skin seemed to stir the cigarette burns to pain, and the pain brought home to him that what had happened, and what was about to happen, were no dream.
A Mercedes made its way slowly down the dirt road from the village, followed closely by a chase vehicle, a metallic gray Land Cruiser filled with bodyguards. Neither car had license plates, and the workers watching the scene play out understood this to mean that the people in them were too important to be stopped by the police. The Mercedes half turned so that it was astride the road and stopped a dozen meters from the kneeling prisoner. The rear window wound down the width of a fist. The Oligarkh could be seen peering out through dark glasses. He removed the cigar from his mouth and studied the naked prisoner for a long while, as if he were committing him and the moment to memory. Then, with a look of unadulterated malevolence on his face, he reached out with one of his crutches and tapped the man sitting next to the driver on the shoulder. The front door opened and the man emerged. He was of medium height and
thin, with a long pinched face. He wore suspenders that kept his trousers hiked high on his waist, and a midnight blue Italian suit jacket draped cape-like over a starched white shirt, which was tieless and buttoned up to a very prominent Adam's apple. The initials "S" and "U-Z" were embroidered on the pocket of the shirt. He strode to the chase car and plucked a lighted cigarette from the mouth of one of the bodyguards. Holding it away from his body between his thumb and third finger, he walked over to the prisoner. Kafkor raised his eyes and saw the cigarette and recoiled, thinking he was about to be branded with the burning tip. But S U-Z, smiling faintly, only reached down and wedged it between the lips of the prisoner. "It is a matter of tradition," he said. "A man condemned to death is entitled to a last cigarette."
"They . . . damaged me, Samat?" Kafkor whispered huskily. He could make out the shock of silver hair on the figure watching from the back seat of the Mercedes. "They locked me in a basement awash in sewage, I could not distinguish night from day, I lost track of time, they woke me . . . with loud music when I fell asleep. Where, explain it to me if there exists an explanation, is the why?" The condemned man spoke Russian with a distinct Polish accent, emphasizing the open O's and stressing the next to last syllable. Terror tortured his sentences into baroque grammatical configurations. "The endmost thing I would tell to nobody is what I am not supposed to know."
Samat shrugged as if to say, The matter is out of my hands. "You arrive too close to the flame, you must suffer burning, if only to warn others away from the flame."
Trembling, Kafkor puffed on the cigarette. The act of smoking, and the smoke auterizing his throat, appeared to distract him. Samat stared at the ash, waiting for it to buckle under its own weight and fall so they could get on with the execution. Kafkor, sucking on the cigarette, became aware of the ash, too. Life itself seemed to ride on it. Defying gravity, defying sense, it grew longer than the unsmoked part of the cigarette.
And then a whisper of wind coming off the river dislodged the ash. Kafkor spit out the butt. "Poshol ty na khuy," he whispered, carefully articulating each of the O's in "Poshol." "Go impale yourself on a prick." He rocked back on his heels and squinted in the direction of the copse of stunted apple trees on the slope above him. "Look!" he blurted out, vanquishing terror only to confront a new enemy, madness. "Up there!" He sucked in his breath. "I see the elephant. It can be said that the beast is revolting."
At the Mercedes, the back door on the far side swung open and a frail woman dressed in an ankle-length cloth coat and peasant galoshes stumbled from the car. She wore a black pillbox hat with a thick veil that fell over her eyes, making it difficult for someone who didn't know her to divine her age. "Jozef-" she shrieked. She stumbled
toward the prisoner about to be executed, then, sinking to her knees, she turned to the man in the back of the car. "What if it should begin to snow?" she cried.
The Oligarkh shook his head. "Trust me, Kristyna-he will be warmer in the ground if the hole is covered with snow."
"He is the same as a son to me," the woman sobbed, her voice fading to a cracked whimper. "We must not bury him before he has had his lunch."
Still on her knees, the woman, shuddering with sobs, started to crawl through the dirt toward the crater. In the back of the Mercedes, the Oligarkh gestured with a finger. The driver sprang from behind the wheel and, pressing the palm of his hand to the woman's mouth, half carried, half dragged her back to the car and folded her body into the back seat. Before the door slammed shut she could be heard sobbing: "And if it does not snow, what then?"
Closing his window, the Oligarkh watched the scene unfold through its tinted glass. The two paratroopers took a grip on the prisoner's arms and lifted him into the crater and set him down on his side, curled up in a fetal position in the round hole. Then they began covering the crater with the thick planks, kicking the ends into the ground so that the tops of the planks were flush with the dirt road. When that was done they dragged a section of metal webbing over the planks. All the while nobody spoke. On the slope the workers, puffing on cigarettes, looked away or stared at their feet.
When the paratroopers finished covering the crater, they backed off to admire their handiwork. One of them waved to the driver of a truck. He climbed behind the wheel and backed up to the crater and worked the lever that elevated the flatbed to spill tarmacadam onto the road. Several workers came over and spread the macadam with long rakes until a thick glistening coating covered the wooden planks and they were no longer visible. They stepped away and the paratroopers signaled for the steamroller. Black fume billowed from its exhaust pipe as the rusty machine lumbered to the edge of the crater. When the driver seemed to hesitate, the horn of the Mercedes sounded and one of the bodyguards standing nearby pumped an arm in irritation. "It is not as if we have all day," he shouted above the bedlam of the steamroller's engine. The driver threw it into gear and started across the crater, packing down the tarmacadam. When he reached the other side, he backed over it again and then swung out of the cab to inspect the newly paved patch of highway. Suddenly, he tore off his improvised face mask and, bending, vomited on his shoes.
Barely making a sound, the Mercedes backed and filled and swung past the chase car and started up the dirt spur toward the sprawling wooden dacha at the edge of the village of Prigorodnaia, soon to be connected to the Moscow-Petersburg highway-and the world-by a ribbon of macadam with a freshly painted white stripe down the middle.
From the book Legends, copyright 2005 by Robert Littell, reprinted with the permission of The Overlook Press.