Littell's least original or ambitious spy novel is also his most straightforwardly engaging one: a derivative story--a little John Buchan, a lot of Brian Garfield-made fresh, thanks to a sophisticated blend of satire, passion, and (occasionally over-cute) comedy. The opening is nothing less than superb, as Littell brings real terror (via ironic distance) to the description of a 1972 terrorist attack on a US embassy in Germany, an attack which ends in terrorist triumph after the execution of one of the hostages: photographer Sarah Diamond, chosen as the first victim because she admits to being Jewish. And then we meet Sarah's fiancÃ‰-mildmannered CIA cryptanalyst Charlie Heller--and watch as he receives the awful news, buries Sarah, and is lectured by her death-camp-survivor father on the benefits of revenge (he murdered a Nazi doctor and ""It brought me back from the dead!""). Will Charlie follow suit and do a Death Wish on the three terrorists who killed Sarah? Yes, indeed--but only after his attempts to get the CIA itself to take such action fail completely; Charlie then does a Hopscotch by blackmailing the Company (he retrieves evidence of CIA dirty doings from his computer), insisting that they give him the training needed to kill the KGB-linked terrorists, who are in hiding in Czechoslovakia. Thus, while amateurish Charlie trains at ""the Farm"" (exchanging repartee with a derisive master sergeant), the CIA stalls him, trying to find his hidden blackmail-material. . . which they manage to do just after Charlie has departed for Prague. And so Charlie, now sneaking behind the Iron Curtain and trailing the KGB lover of terrorist Gretchen, is in multiple danger--from Czech authorities, from the CIA, and from the KGB (tipped off by the CIA). Luckily, however, he soon acquires a loyal accomplice/lover in sometime CIA agent Elizabeth, widow of a dissident Czech poet; she helps him to avoid death-traps, to find terrorists Gretchen (Charlie, posing as an M.D., scares her to death with an X-ray machine) and Juan Antonio (shot while swimming in a glasseddn pool). And finally there's a hall-of-mirrors showdown with top terrorist Horst--plus last-minute twists to explain why the CIA has been so determined to stop Charlie's mission. This windup may be a bit over-contrived; likewise the coincidentally large number of Shakespeare scholars among the cast of characters. And some of Littell's comic shadings slide over into burlesque: the flashy black-comic murders; Elizabeth's habit of getting English clichÃ‰s wrong (""Let sleeping pigs lie""); a subplot about Charlie's quest to prove--through cryptanalysis--that Francis Bacon wrote the Bard's plays. But when it really counts--Sarah's moving death scene, Charlie's grief, the funny-awful CIA ambience, the crucial buildups of tension--Littell is in top form, making this a tremendously endearing and involving suspense frolic, a charmer which thoroughly transcends its cheap or hackneyed moments.