All the same, one would have liked to have been there when Peter Mayer, one of the world's most powerful publishers when he ran global Penguin and now owner-operator of pocket-sized Overlook Press, sat down with master-spy novelist Robert Littell to breathe life into what was to become a drop-dead history of the CIA in the long and dangerous decades of America's Cold War against the Soviet bloc. "I hope he gives me some small credit for coming to him with the idea," Mayer confides to PW when setting up the meeting with Littell. (Relax, Peter; he did.) This publisher put more money into The Company: A Novel of the CIA than he ever thought he would for a book, later ordered the largest printing he'd ever expected to do at Overlook—it's now up to 70,000 copies—with an impressive $100,000 earmarked for marketing... and then began reaping the benefits long months before publication.

First, there was an impressive paperback floor, which evolved into a snappy check from Penguin for $225,000. Then came notification that the novel would be a featured alternative at Book-of-the-Month. Soon Barnes & Noble's buyers wanted to know when they could get their hands on Littell's entire backlist of spy novels. Undaunted, Mayer ordered up 13 jacket designs, and now has to decide whether the reprints should be done as hardbacks or softcover. Meanwhile, rights were sold in six countries before publication, notably to the U.K.'s Macmillan/Pan. And even before an edited manuscript was ready, New Millennium acquired audio rights, with plans for an unabridged version.

And along the way, Mayer and his author have become lasting friends; of the same generation, they already shared a lot of history before starting out on this new adventure. Indeed, the apparent ease with which Bob Littell dissects the undercover shenanigans of the Cold War years led some early readers to assume that he'd spent time in intelligence work himself. The author is convincing when he denies this, and when he walks through his CV, we can guess where all the knowledge of the secret world came from.

Littell, who now calls home a rural paradise in southwest France, has come calling at PW's safe house in Montparnasse during a brief visit to Paris before a longer stay in Morocco. Turns out he's a Brooklyn boy, born there in January 1935—and "miseducated" in the vicinity. After graduating from Alfred University, Littell did four years in the navy, spending most of his tour on a destroyer. The experience wasn't much help when the time came to find a job.

"I used to say that the only thing I could do at the age of 24 was hunt submarines." But during his navy days he learned what about secret codes, and code-breaking is an element in many of his stories. Finally, he found his true path in journalism—or at least a path that led him through fields of knowledge that would serve him well in his fiction.

Not much was learned, however, at his first job on a Long Branch, N.J., paper, whose editor sent him to a neighboring small town as bureau chief—"chief because I was the only one in the office." His next job was at United Press, writing five-minute summaries for the radio news; later, he moved over to Long Island's Newsday. But the big time came with Newsweek, where he worked on the foreign affairs desk. While there, he took a long leave to drive from Paris through Eastern Europe to the U.S.S.R. By the time he got back to New York, he was a Soviet expert, and in 1967 was assigned the magazine's cover story on the 50th anniversary of the October revolution. He knows that his family origins have much to do with his fascination with Eastern Europe (and truly it does run in the family, for one of his sons presently lives in Moscow, the other in Prague). So of course Bob Littell's books, when he began to write them, were set in such places as Bulgaria, the former Czechoslovakia and the U.S.S.R. "But I'm not a Communist," he insists, as if we were Senator McCarthy.

Like so many journalists, he often daydreamed about doing his own thing. Yet the atmosphere of the newsroom was almost as tempting, and so was the pay and the opportunity for travel. Then one day he bought a share of a cheap house in southern France and announced to his editor that he was quitting. "What can I do to dissuade you?" "Nothing. I don't know a better place to work than Newsweek."

The year was 1970. With his wife, his two small boys and an Olivetti portable, he was off to Provence (just above the Riviera coast) with a $10,000 nest egg. He gave himself a year. The produce of the year was The Defection of A.J. Lewinter, which he sent to his agent of the time. "He fired me. And then a cousin of mine in publishing read the manuscript and suggested I go back to my job at Newsweek." But an American friend in Paris thought the book eminently salable and found a French publisher for it (turned out to be Marcel Duhamel, a filmmaker who would go on to run Gallimard's famous Série Noire suspense series). And by now Littell had found an American agent who truly believed in him, and the agent found Houghton Mifflin.

With the publication of Lewinter—his first novel—in 1973 the influential New York Times daily critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt gave him a rocket liftoff, praising "the unusual credibility of Mr. Littell's scenes,... the convincing subtlety of the characters,... breathing inventiveness," qualities that helped to explain "why this novel makes The Spy Who Came In From the Cold seem like a clumsy child taking its first steps—why it's one of the best Cold War thrillers I've read in years."

That rave, coming from that critic and in that newspaper, got the book onto the bestseller list ("for an hour and a half," sighs the author). And of course it jump-started his writing career, and he was ready to begin the second of his 13 novels. The October Circle, published in 1976, was sited in Bulgaria, that small nation inside the Soviet orbit for which he had developed a particular affection. This time, Lehmann-Haupt decided that "there is something about cold war politics that seems to fire Mr. Littell's imagination." And Lehmann-Haupt was not complaining. Later, in the daily Times, Anatole Broyard took over the Littell beat, finding The Amateur (1981) to be his best work so far.

The critical acclaim was now coming from all over. "The American le Carré," a reviewer gushed (not aware of Lehmann-Haupt's earlier ranking of Littell above le Carré). "An American Eric Ambler," gushed another. "If he didn't invent the American spy novel," quoth Tom Clancy, "he should have." "Littell's novels are as good as thriller writing gets." He's a worker; writing is all. He and his French wife, Victoria, use their charming old manor house on a hill overlooking the Dordogne River, surrounded by woods and a carefully tended garden, as office and studio both (she's a painter). The Dordogne region is paradise to many foreigners, known for castles set on heights, cave paintings below, geese and ducks everywhere (and lots of foie gras inside them). The Littells spend their winters elsewhere, which can mean Santa Fe as easily as Jerusalem, Venice, Sienna, Rome—or Ireland ("always in winter, when it's cheaper"). But the writing and the painting go on.

Along the way, Bob Littell acquired a world-class agent, Ed Victor (a Brooklyn neighbor he never knew). "We all feel that we're his only client," Littell says, trying to describe the relationship. "He's always there, returns every call, deals with every problem.... And he reads our books—he's one of the last readers!"

As for the inception of the project that took four precious years out of his life: Littell happened to be in New York en route to France after a spell of house-swapping in Nantucket when that decisive meeting took place with Peter Mayer, a meeting set up by Ed Victor, who remembered that Mayer had one told him that he read Littell for pleasure. For his part, Littell had never before tried to write a book from someone else's idea, but this time he listened. And what an idea it turned out to be: a huge canvas enveloping half a century of history. Mayer remembers seeing Littell's eyes light up, as he became aware that nobody had ever done what he was being asked to do.

"On the flight back to France, I scribbled a lot of notes, and at home I began grabbing books off the shelves—I have a whole reference library on contemporary history," Littell tells PW. A month later, he was ready with a 25-page letter to his publisher, describing what the book would look like. Then Peter Mayer took over, helping him to focus it, after which he preempted the project. At that autumn's Frankfurt Fair, Ed Victor and Andrew Nurnberg, Victor's agent for foreign rights, made impressive sales to Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. "And then all I had to do was write the book."

Actually, he had to do something else before sitting down to write, namely, a year's worth of research. That included a certain amount of travel, notably to former trouble spots such as Berlin, Budapest and Moscow. But also—of all places—to Pakistan, to familiarize himself with the terrain for his Afghan episode. His book was turned in a year before September 11, but it deals with America's earlier engagement in Afghanistan, a grim prelude to the most recent one. "It's where we come from" is the way he puts it now.

After the research, he spent two solid years writing, about which a friend said: "He writes a kilogram a year."

It is "history" without pain, thanks to Littell's decision to focus on a small group of CIA chieftains—field officers as well as headquarters types, an immoderate number of whom were recruited out of Yale. He uses real names and when possible real personalities, often enhanced to make them come across. Since no single person was likely to have been involved in every significant episode of the Cold War, he's divvied up the work among his characters, some of them involved in this episode, some in that. Did he find himself taking sides? Littell admits that the book's leitmotif is the nay-saying of the CIA's counterespionage chief James Angleton—his real name by the way—who was convinced that a Soviet mole was nested high up in the CIA. Angleton's "paranoia"—seeing every defector as a KGB plant—crippled the agency's anti-Soviet capabilities over the most crucial years of the Cold War. In Littell's account, Angleton appears to have been right to worry. (In earlier days, the biggest threat to CIA operations had been Angleton's buddy and confidant Kim Philby, his liaison with British Intelligence.)

Not unexpectedly, The Company came out as a whopper of a book, 894 packed pages long; ostensibly a single novel, it can also be read as an anthology of cracking good spy stories. For Littell sees his protagonists, Americans, Soviets and everyone in-between, through all the major and minor crises of the Stalin years, the Hungarian insurrection, the Berlin wall, Cuba and the aborted Bay of Pigs landing, not forgetting the pro-Soviet coup in Afghanistan, followed by a decade-long war in that remote land we have all grown to know.

In his closing pages, the author manages to give us the inside story of the plot against Gorbachev by Soviet hard-liners and the rise of a seemingly lucid Boris Yeltsin. We even get a fleeting glimpse of a not-so-nice character named Vladimir Putin—"conspicuously upwardly mobile," as a Company veteran has learned.

At some point in his writing, Littell realized that the secret world he was trying to resuscitate had its mirror reflection in the intricate universe of Lewis Carroll (one of his CIA officers constantly quotes Alice in Wonderland). "I went back to the Alice books to discover that espionage runs all through them. Even to write about espionage is like falling through a rabbit hole, where nothing is quite what it seems to be. Alice took me by the hand and led me through Berlin in the 1950s, when it was a killing field. Later to Hungary, then to Afghanistan, and finally to the Soviet Union and the coup against Gorbachev.

"Carroll thought childhood was full of dangers, and children were vulnerable. His improbable characters perform bizarre actions—but they are all cards, and Alice's job is to find them out.

"The parallels are fabulous." And Alice—not Angleton—made the jacket of The Company.