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Sleeper Spy

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Just as the defeat of Nazi Germany failed to put an end to apocalyptic thrillers about Hitler, so the collapse of the Soviet Union appears unlikely to finish off the Cold War spy novel Sleeper Spy, by William Safire. And why should it? Russia’s still there, after all, seething with ancient grudges, nationalistic fervor, and Dostoyevskian passions. So why shouldn’t a veteran cold warrior like New York Times columnist and former Nixon speechwriter William Safire resurrect the dread specter of Stalinism yet again? Back in the bad old days before communism fell apart, see, the wicked geniuses in the KGB planted a ”sleeper agent” in the U.S. They trained him to be an investment banker, furnished him with a $3 billion Swiss bank account, and fed him enough stolen economic data to parlay it into a huge fortune. (Safire acknowledges the similarity of this plot device to Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File.) Anyway, should the cash fall into the hands of unrepentant Stalinist plotters, you can just imagine the consequences. And who stands between the villains and their evil coup? Only the intrepid Irving Fein — the ”greatest reporter in the world” — and his spunky sidekick, network newsbabe Viveca Farr. The result is a hyper-complicated, never credible tale filled with tendentious rhetoric and occasional shrewd insights into the New York media scene. As a novelist, Safire combines a Norman Mailer-like egotism with Robert Ludlum’s tin ear. Even so, his sheer vigor can be oddly charming. B