Robert Littell, . . Overlook, $24.95 (304pp) ISBN 978-1-58567-347-6

The reissue of this 1973 Cold War gem comes on the heels of Littell's recent hardcover thriller The Company. Set in the early 1970s, the spy thriller–cum–black comedy begins when A.J. Lewinter, an eccentric American engineer specializing in nose cones for ballistic missiles, decides to defect to the Soviet Union. Such a high-level defection is unprecedented, and each side suspects the other of something fishy. A hilarious contest ensues as they try to outconnive each other. On the American side is a coldly libidinous intelligence agent named Diamond (when a mistress asks him what he would have done if she hadn't passed a security background check, he says, "I would have taken you to bed—but I wouldn't have talked to you"). His KGB analogue is the nervous Pogodin (self-described as "one-quarter Marxist, one-quarter humanist, and one-half bureaucrat"), who knows too well the consequences of any mistake. The book paints a bleak view of both sides of the Cold War divide: the socialist dream has given way to a police state plagued by chronic food shortages and ruled by an elite oligarchy that gets the few decent cars and apartments in Moscow, while on democracy's home front, race riots and antiwar protests multiply. Concise, smart and funny, this novel turns Cold War spy clichés on their head. Though the ambiguous ending no longer terrifies, this book still packs a punch and seems prescient to boot. Those who only know Littell's more recent works should enjoy this fast, fun trip into the past. (Dec.)