Don't be surprised if this generation-spanning spy saga ignites widespread nostalgia for the days of the Cold War. It immerses the reader in a world of comparative political clarity, a time when clear-cut secular ideologies clashed on a grand scale. Robert Littell's characters spend little time, though, discussing political philosophies. They know from the start which side they're on. The Company of the title is, of course, the Central Intelligence Agency.

The story begins in 1950, just as the CIA is emerging from World War II's Office of Strategic Services. By this time, the U.S. and Russia are already circling each other for global supremacy, their recent common cause against Germany relegated to history. Into this bubbling geopolitical stew come Jack McAuliffe and Leo Kritzky, Yale roommates recruited by the CIA to join its first generation of shadow warriors. A fellow Yalie, Russian exchange student Yevgeny Alexandrovich Tsipin, returns home for KGB training and reassignment to America as a deep undercover agent.

Joining McAuliffe and Kritzky for a series of missions that will continue until the Soviet Union crumbles is high-principled E. Winston Ebby Ebbitt II, a Columbia University law school graduate. In the years ahead, these three friends will be in the backrooms and on the frontlines at the Hungarian uprising, the Bay of Pigs invasion, various domestic upheavals and the Russian war with Afghanistan. We see them fall in love, marry and have children who eventually follow in their furtive footsteps. Unlike writers who use historical characters and events as backdrops for their fictional ones, Littell integrates them both seamlessly. The real CIA head spook, James Angleton, hovers over Liddell's trio of fictional agents, alternately inspiring and outraging them with his mania for detail and his raging paranoia. Stung by the revelation that his mentor and good friend Kim Philby is a spy for Russia, Angleton is convinced there's a high-level mole in the agency.

CIA directors Allen Dulles, William Colby, William Casey and others have speaking roles here, as do Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan. Glimpsed in the background are such familiars as William F. Buckley Jr., E. Howard Hunt, William Sloan Coffin and Frank Sinatra, his Rat Pack and gangster friends. Littell populates his narrative with colorful, inventive spymasters, chief among them Angleton's Soviet counterpart, the pedophile Starik; the CIA's hard-drinking and duplicitous Harvey The Sorcerer Torriti; and Israel's eagle-eyed Ezra Ben Ezra, affectionately dubbed the Rabbi. Readers who lived through or who have studied the Cold War will relish Littell's touches of verisimilitude his off-handed references to movies, comic strips, songs, personalities and books which were popular during the periods he writes about. In one scene, the Sorcerer praises Littell's own then-current novel, The Defection of A.J. Lewinter.

Certain references, though, reveal either the author's carelessness or else his taunting of readers to be attentive to the kind of minute details by which spies live or die. For example, he has President Kennedy recommending Catch-22 several months before it was reviewed in The New York Times. He has a character in February 1951, listening to the song Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, which he identifies as then being number three on the American top ten. Not likely, since the song didn't even enter the Billboard charts until August 1951, and then rose only to the number 19 spot. His characters use such words and phrases as security blanket, maven and liaising, not, perhaps, before they actually entered the language, but certainly well before they became conversationally commonplace.

In the book's final chapter, set in 1995, Littell makes it plain that even though the Cold War is over, the great game [of spying] goes on. He describes a man, code-named Ramon, waiting in his car in a Washington, D.C., suburb to pick up $50,000 for American secrets he has stolen for the Russians. That man was real FBI agent Robert Hanssen and it would be five more years before he was caught. Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.

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