A Nasty Piece of Work

  • Robert Littell
  • Thomas Dunne
  • 272 pp.

A disillusioned CIA operative turned PI takes on a case only to find that the man he's searching for may not exist.

An admitted fan of Raymond Chandler (who isn’t?), Robert Littell recently decided to try his hand at a private-eye thriller. The result is A Nasty Piece of Work, and it is anything but.

The 78-year-old Littell is an American residing in France who has spent most of his fascinating life (naval officer, Newsweek foreign correspondent, mountain climber) writing the spy novels that made his reputation. And what a reputation it is.

His first novel, 1973’s The Defection of A.J. Lewinter, is considered a Cold War classic and elicited immediate comparison to the works of John le Carré, Len Deighton and Graham Greene. A dozen subsequent spy novels followed, culminating in The Company, a 900-page tour de force about the CIA that became a huge bestseller in 2002.

Switching genres is always dicey, but less so for wordsmiths of Littell’s caliber. In A Nasty Piece of Work, he brings the same acerbic wit and candid observations to bear on the lowlifes of the American West (where his private-eye protagonist, Lemuel Gunn, resides) that he did in his international thrillers.

Gunn is a disillusioned CIA operative who now works out of a mobile home in Hatch, N.M. (Proving, I suppose, that you can take the author out of the CIA but you can’t take the CIA entirely out of the author.) I won’t go into what disillusioned Gunn, but the novel is set in 2006, not long after the CIA was involved in some nasty (there’s that word again) doings in Afghanistan. Suffice it to say that Gunn’s jaundiced view of the human race is well earned.

Not that Gunn is a burnt-out case. When the luscious (and lusciously named) Ornella Neppi comes into his life, his thoughts boomerang between the case she wants him to undertake and his hopes of getting into her knickers. Neppi tells Gunn she has to find Emilio Gava, a drug dealer she says may be about to skip on the $125,000 bond her uncle put up. Neppi, who also makes her living as a puppeteer, has been helping to run her uncle’s bail-bond business. But, she says, she made a crucial mistake. She didn’t check the validity of the property deed that was used as collateral for Gava’s bond. It’s a phony.

Gunn signs on, and soon finds out that no one seems to know what Gava looks like. Police and newspaper photos have mysteriously disappeared. Descriptions are vague. Motives are hard to fathom. Soon the plot is replete with a mysterious blonde, cops, FBI agents, newspaper reporters, mobsters and the delightful denizens of a retirement community from hell (as it is sure to be regarded by any reader nearing retirement).

Littell is not plumbing (or “plumming”) new ground here. Janet Evanovic’s Stephanie Plum (get it?) is a bounty hunter also adept at tracking down sleazy characters. But Lemuel Gunn works in a darker world than Plum and Littell’s hard-boiled cynicism, a carryover from his spy novels, is often at odds with the dialogue from some of his characters, all of whom speak the same Chandleresque patois. As for those characters, there are too many of the quirky variety, which detracts from the humdinger of a plot.

A Nasty Piece of Work lives up to its title. There is betrayal and gore galore. But I found the complicated relationship between Gunn and Neppi charming and sexy, and was rooting for them. You will have to read the book to see what happens. It’s plausible and sad at the same time.

All in all, a good, if not great, start to what will probably be a series.

Lawrence De Maria is a former New York Times Pulitzer-nominated reporter whose nine thrillers and mysteries, including the recently released The Viron Conspiracy, are available on Amazon.com.


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