Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Legends by Robert Littell


Rating: (Highly Recommended)




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Spy novel fans will love Robert Littell’s new novel, Legends.  We find retired spy Martin Odum is unclear whether he really is who he thinks he is, or if Martin Odum is one of the “legends” or created identities that the CIA built with him. Over the fast pace of almost 400 pages, we learn with Odum who he has been, who he is, and what that means for him today. Here’s an excerpt, all of the chapter titled, “1994: MARTIN ODUM GETS ON WITH HIS LIVES,” pp. 42-48:


“Could you say something so I can check the voice level?”

“What should I say?”

“Anything that comes into your head.”

“. . . the silent cannons bright as gold rumble lightly over the stones. Silent cannons, soon to cease your silence, soon unlimber’d to begin the red business.”

“That’s fine. Remember to speak directly into the microphone. All right, here we go. For the record: We’re Thursday, the sixteenth of June, 1994. ‘What follows is a tape recording of my first session with Martin Odum. My name is Bernice Treffler. I’m the director of the psychiatric unit at this private hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. If you want to break at any time, Mr. Odum, wave a hand. What were those lines from, by the way?”

“One of Walter ‘Whitman’s Civil War poems.”

“Any reason you call him Walter instead of Walt?”

“I was under the impression that people who knew him called him Walter.”

“Are you a fan of Whitman’s?”

“Not that I’m aware of. I didn’t know I knew the lines until I said them.”

“Does the Civil War interest you?”

“It doesn’t interest me, Martin Odum, but it interested—how can I explain this?—it interested someone close to me. In one of my incar­nations, I was supposed to have taught a course in a junior college on the Civil War. When we were working up the legend—”

“I’m sorry. The CIA people I’ve treated up to now have all been officers working at Langley. You’re my first actual undercover agent.

‘What is a legend?”

“It’s a fabricated identity. Many Company people use legends, especially when they operate outside the United States.”

“Well, I can see my vocabulary is going to expand talking to you, Mr. Odum. Go on with what you were saying.”

“What was I saying?”

“You were saying something about working up a legend.”

“Uh-huh. Since in my new incarnation I was supposed to be something of an expert on the subject, the person I was becoming had to study the Civil War. He read a dozen books, he visited many of the battlefields, he attended seminars, that sort of thing.”

“He, not you?”


“Was there a name assigned to this particular, eh, legend?”

“Dittmann, with two t’s and two n’s. Lincoln Dittmann.”

“Do you have a headache, Mr. Odum?”

“I can feel one starting to press against the back of my eyes. Could you crack a window? It’s very stuffy in here. . . Thanks.”

“Would you like an aspirin?”

“Later, maybe.”

“Do you get headaches often?”

“More or less often.”

“Hmmm. What kind of person was this Lincoln Dittmann?”

“I’m not sure I understand the question.”

“Was he different, say, from you? Different from Martin Odum?”

“That was the whole point—to make him different so he could operate without anyone mistaking him for me or me for him.”

“What could Lincoln Dittmann do that you couldn’t?”

“To begin with, he was an extraordinary marksman, much more skilled than me. He would take his sweet time to be sure he got the kill, one shot to a target. He would crank in corrections for windage and distance and then slowly squeeze (as opposed to jerk) the trigger. I’m too high-strung to kill in cold blood unless I’m goaded into action by the likes of Lincoln. The few times in my life that I aimed at a human target, my mouth went dry, a pulse pounded in my tem­ple, I had to will my trigger finger not to tremble. When a born-again sniper like Lincoln shot at a human target, the only thing he felt was the recoil of the rifle. What else? I was more proficient in tradecraft— I could melt into a crowd when there wasn’t one, so they said. Lincoln stood out in a crowd like a sore thumb. He was obviously more cerebral than me, or my other legend, for that matter. He was a better chess player, not because he was smarter than me, it’s just that I was too impatient, too restless to figure out the implications of any particular gambit, to work out what would happen eight or ten moves down the tube. Lincoln, on the other hand, was blessed with incredible patience. If an assignment required stalking someone, Lincoln was the agent of choice for the job. And then there was the way we each looked at the world.”

Go on.

“Martin Odum is a basically edgy individual—there are days when he jumps at his own shadow. He’s afraid to set foot in a place he’s never been to before, he’s apprehensive when he meets someone he doesn’t already know. He lets people—women, especially—come to him. He has a sex drive but he’s just as happy to abstain. When he makes love, he goes about it cautiously. He pays a lot of attention to the woman’s pleasure before he takes his own.”

“And Dittmann?”

“Nothing fazed Lincoln—not his own shadow, not places he hadn’t been to, not people he didn’t already know. It wasn’t a matter of his being fearless; it was more a question of his being addicted to fear, of his requiring a daily fix.”

“What you’re describing is very similar to a split personality.”

“You don’t get it. It’s not a matter of splitting a personality. It’s a matter of creating distinct personalities altogether who . . . Excuse me but why are you making notes when this is being recorded?”

“The conversation has taken a turn for the fascinating, Mr. Odum. I’m jotting down some initial impressions. Were there other dissimilar­ities between Dittmann and Odum; between Dittmann and you?”

“Creating a working legend didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of time and effort. The details were worked out with the help of a team of experts. Odum smokes Beedies, Dittmann smoked Schimelpenicks when he could find them, any thin cigars when he couldn’t. Odum didn’t eat meat, Dittmann loved a good sirloin steak. Odum is a Capricorn, Dittmann didn’t know what his Zodiac sign was and couldn’t have cared less. Odum washes and shaves every day but never uses aftershave lotions. Dittmann washed when he could and doused himself with Vetiver between showers. Odum is a loner; the handful of people who know him joke that he prefers the com­pany of bees to humans, and there’s a grain of truth to that. Dittmann was gregarious; unlike Odum he was a good dancer, he liked night clubs, he was capable of drinking large quantities of cheap alcohol with beer chasers without getting drunk. He did dope, he solved crossword puzzles in ink, he played Parcheesi and Go. When it came to women, he was an unconditional romantic. He had a soft spot for females”—Martin remembered a mission that had taken Lincoln to a town on the Paraguayan side of Three Border—”who were afraid of the darkness when the last light has been drained from the day, afraid of men who removed their belts before they took off their trousers, afraid life on earth would end before dawn tomorrow, afraid it would go on forever.”

“And you—”

“I don’t do dope. I don’t play board games. I don’t do crossword puzzles, even in pencil.”

“So Odum and Dittmann are antipodes? That means—”

“Lincoln Dittmann would know what antipodes means. And in a corner of one lobe of my brain I have access to what he knows.”

“What does this access consist of?”

“You’re not going to believe this.”

“Try me.”

Martin said, very softly, “There are moments when I hear his voice whispering in my ear. That’s how I came up with those Walter ‘Whitman lines.”

“Lincoln Dittmann whispered them to you.”

“Uh-huh. Other times I know what he would do or say if he were in my shoes.”

“I see.”

“What do you see?”

“I see why your employer sent you to us. Hmmm. I’m a bit con­fused about something. You talk about Lincoln Dittmann in the past tense, as if he doesn’t exist anymore.”

Lincoln’s as real as me.”

“The way you talk about Martin Odum, it almost seems as if he’s a legend, too. Is he?”

When Martin didn’t answer she repeated the question. “Is Martin Odum another of your fabricated identities, Mr. Odum?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Are you telling me you really don’t know?”

“I thought that’s what you were supposed to help me find out. One of the legends must be real. The question is which.”

“Well, this is certainly going to be more interesting than I expect­ed. You have a very original take on MPD.”

“What the heck is MPD?”

“It stands for Multiple Personality Disorder.”

“Is what I have fatal? Why are you smiling?”

“Multiple Personality Disorder is far more likely to be functional than fatal, Mr. Odum. It permits patients who suffer from it to survive.”

“Survive what?”

“That’s what we’re going to try to work our way back to. Let me give you the short course on MPD. My guess is that somewhere along the line something happened to you. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the trauma took place in childhood—sexual assaults are high on the list of childhood traumas, but not the only things on the list. I had one case about four years ago where a patient turned out to have been traumatized because he played with matches and started a fire that resulted in the death of his baby sister. The trauma short-circuited the patient’s narrative memory. This particular patient developed seven distinct adult personalities, each with its own set of emotions and memories and even skills. He switched from one to another whenever he came under any stress. None of the seven alter personalities—what you would call legends, Mr. Odum—remem­bered the original childhood personality or the trauma associated with that personality. So you see, switching between personalities— almost always accompanied by a headache, incidentally—was a sur­vival mechanism. It was his way of erecting a memory barrier, of shielding himself from an extremely frightening childhood experi­ence, and it’s in this sense that MPD is considered to be functional. It allows you to get on with your life—”

“Or your lives.”

“Very good, Mr. Odum. Or your lives, yes. My instinct tells me you certainly don’t fit neatly into the literature on the subject, inas­much as you developed your alter personalities out of operational necessity, as opposed to a psychological necessity. When your psyche decided it needed to disappear behind a memory barrier, you had a series of personalities crafted and waiting to be stepped into. It’s in this sense that you can be said to fit into the Multiple Personality profile.”

“How different were your patient’s seven personalities?”

“In my patient’s case, as in the majority of MPD cases, they were quite distinct, involving diverse habits, talents, interests, values, dress codes, mannerisms, body language, ways of expressing themselves. They even made love differently. The alter personalities had different names and several of them even had different ages. One of them was unable to communicate verbally while another spoke a language—in his case Yiddish—that the others didn’t understand.”

“How is it possible for one personality to speak a language that another of his personalities doesn’t understand?”

“It’s a perfect example of how compartmented what you call leg­ends can be in the brain.”

“Were the seven personalities aware of each other’s existence?”

“Some were, some weren’t. This aspect can vary from case to case. More often than not several of the personalities seem to be aware of the existence of several other of the personalities—they think of them the way you would think of friends who you know exist but haven’t seen in awhile. And there is what we call a trace personality—in your case it would appear to be Martin Odum—who serves as a repository of information about all of the other personalities except the host personality that experienced the trauma. This would account for the sensation you have that, as you said a moment ago, in a corner of your brain you have access to the specialized knowledge or talents of another alter personality, or as you would put it, another legend.”

“I have a question, Dr. Treffler.”

“Listen, since we’re going to be working together for some time, how about if we move on to a first name basis. Call me Bernice and I’ll call you Martin, okay?”

“Sure. Bernice.”

“What’s your question, Martin?”

“I seem to be able to distinguish three operational identities. There’s Martin Odum. There’s Lincoln Dittmann. And there’s one I haven’t introduced you to—the Irishman, Dante Pippen. Today of all days, Dante would be out on a pub crawl in Dublin, seeing how many of the city’s pubs he could drink in before the sun set.”

“What’s so special about today?”

“It’s Bloomsday, for pete’s sake. All the action in Ulysses takes place ninety years ago today—16 June, 1904.” Martin shut his eyes and angled his head. “Bloom entered Davy Byrne’s. Moral pub. The pub­lican doesn’t chat. Stands a drink now and then.’ On top of every­thing, it was a Tuesday, like today. In Ireland, that’s the kind of thing you don’t let pass without praying at what Dante liked to call licensed tabernacles.”


“So here’s my question: Is one of my three legends genuine? Or is there a fourth personality lurking in the shadows who’s the original me?”

“Can’t respond to that one yet. Either premise could be correct.

There could be a fourth legend, even a fifth. We won’t know until we start to break down the memory barriers, brick by brick, to get to the identity that recognizes himself as the original you.”

“For that to happen, the childhood trauma will have to surface?”

“Is that a question or a statement of fact?”


“I’m going to enjoy working with you, Martin. You’re very quick. You’re not frightened, at least not to the point where you’d walk away from this adventure. The answer to your question is: To get to what you call the original you, you’re almost certainly to have to experience pain. How do you feel about pain?”

“Not sure what to answer. Martin Odum may feel one way about it, Lincoln Dittmann and Dante Pippen, another.”

“On that delightful note, what do you say we call it a day?”

“Uh-huh.” As an afterthought, Martin asked, “Could I take you up on that aspirin?”


Some spy novels twist readers into a frenzy with subplots and confusing narrative leading nowhere. Littell takes readers inside the spy world on the pages of Legends, and never disappoints with a frustrating subplot. Every page builds toward the discovery of who Martin Odum really is.


Steve Hopkins, August 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the September 2005 issue of Executive Times


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