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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gulf War Vet Meets KGB Spy

Tough-guy actor Charles Bronson starred in a B-grade spy thriller called "Telefon" in the mid-1970s which had perhaps the best preview in movie history. For three action-packed minutes, the screen was chock full of great one-liners, car wrecks, explosions, fist-fights and general mayhem.

With appetites thus whetted, virtually every male under 25 who saw the trailer rushed to the theater the week the movie opened, only to discover the film itself stunk. Every decent scrap of it had been crammed into the trailer while the rest of the movie was uneven, uninteresting, unoriginal and generally lacked plot.

The same could be said, regrettably, about Walking Back the Cat, the latest thriller from well-established spy novelist Robert Littell. Published by Faber and packaged to imply quality, the book, like the movie, promises more than it delivers.

But that is not all the two have in common; the action of both revolves around a dormant KGB spy ring in America, which is re-activated to serve evil ends.

Oh, Littell has updated the theme a little. Finn, the novel's American anti-hero who is running away from his past, is shell-shocked because he saw too much in the war. But Finn is a Gulf War, not a Vietnam, vet. The other thing to set Finn apart from that tight-lipped legion of violent yet sensitive loners, who have populated the fictional American West from its earliest days, is that he rides into town in a hot-air balloon instead of on a horse.

Much of the action in the novel takes place in the politically correct setting of a Suma Apache reservation in New Mexico. But at heart, Walking Back the Cat is your basic spy novel/Western.

By far the most interesting character in the novel is Edouard Cheklachvilli, code-named Parsifal, a Georgian KGB agent who is called out of semi-retirement in a trailer park in the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, to do what he does best. For Parsifal is a wizard at "wetwork," KGB slang for murder.

Parsifal has an amazingly sensitive nose. "For Parsifal, almost everything -- books, rugs, weapons, clothing, wax melting on a lighted candle, water dripping from a tap, a dog in heat, a woman nursing a baby -- had a telltale odor."

But Littell does not exploit this ability to provide a fresh perspective for the reader. Instead, Parsifal is generally overwhelmed by toilet smells and the like.

Parsifal's cover is that of an antique gun collector and the book is shot through with references to old firearms. But why the agent, supposedly a genius at covering his tracks, should then choose to use those same antiques when he wants to shoot someone ("a woman was shot to death in Dallas not long ago with an eleven-millimeter bullet fired from a handgun that could only have come from another country and another century") is never explained. It is one of the more obvious holes in the book's plot.

Upon reactivation, Parsifal is ordered to commit a series of murders, first of a Russian defector, then of a string of Apaches. The Apaches are running a casino in Watershed Station, the town which Finn drifted into, and are being shaken down by what they believe is the mafia.

When Parsifal finally decides to ask questions first and shoot later, he meets up with Finn and the two of them, in Parsifal's words, "pool our violence" to find out who is actually behind the shakedowns and who has been calling Parsifal's shots for him, so to speak.

The process of working back from the hired guns to the bosses, known in spy-novel lingo as "walking back the cat," leads to the obligatory earth-shattering showdown at the end of the book.

Along the way, Littell weaves together reams of well-researched background information on spycraft, Apaches, guns, Apaches, gambling, Apaches, hot-air ballooning and Apaches. But, although Littell does use the "A" word with annoying frequency, he never manages to create credible Apache characters.

Nor is the author always in control of his language. It jars when one of Watershed's young men, having just said, "All right my man Nahkahyen," then asks, "What about the stranger who sails on the winds to Watershed?"

And it sounds even odder when Eskeltsetle, the middle-aged Suma chief and devoted native spiritualist, greets Finn by saying, "The sacred winds have carried you to a time warp that goes by the name of Watershed Station." A time warp? Did the sacred winds beam him down while they were at it?

And sometimes the book is simply overwritten: "From the Pacific Rim came a rending of garments, a tearing of skin that gradually transformed itself into an open wound, then quickly darkened as the orange of the blast furnace was blotted up by the silver of the sea."

To quote Tonto, the legendary fictional Indian: "Ugh."

The worst part is, artsy pretensions ruin what could otherwise be not a bad little thriller. Littell is at his best when he is dealing with the hard-core end of the spectrum. Action scenes are well-handled, although the climax is hopelessly hackneyed. The pace of the book is best described as cinematic, with lots of short chapters and -- despite Parsifal's amazing olfactory glands -- a relentlessly visual approach to the descriptions. In fact, it reads like a book intended for Hollywood. Perhaps Littell saw "Telefon," too.

One of the key themes stalking Walking Back the Cat is, where do old spies fit into a post-Cold War world? It is a question that has been dealt with by everyone in the genre from John le Carr? and Tom Clancy on down. Instead, maybe it is time to ask: Now that the Cold War is over, what do you do with old spy writers?

Walking Back the Cat by Robert Littell is published by Faber & Faber, 218 pages, ?14.99 (about $22).