Sun, Jan 28, 2007 - Page 19 News List

I spy with my little eye ...

Larry J. Kolb, in `America at Night,' takes his readers on a breathless rummage through the nation's dirty laundry, and some of it stinks to high heaven

By Janet Maslin  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

AMERICA AT NIGHT
By Larry J. Kolb
305 pages
RIVERHEAD BOOKS

In his first book, Overworld, Larry J. Kolb told a dizzying, spy-studded story of his lifelong adventures as the son of a senior US intelligence official. It was an amazing account, almost too much so, filled with events far too strange for fiction. And it was packed with guest stars, from Muhammad Ali to Ronald Reagan. For a man who had lived so much of his life in the shadows, Kolb used this book to cast an improbably bright light.

Overworld came out in 2004. According to Kolb's sketchier but equally lively second book, America at Night, its publication greatly changed his fortunes. By then he was no longer in his James Bond phase. This was not "one of the decades in which I lived in suits and ties, especially if tuxedos count as suits," he writes in the new book. But thanks to the exposure that Overworld brought him, he says, life became newly glamorous. He was in Los Angeles, headed for a meeting about a movie deal and possibly to a party full of supermodels when duty called and threw him into a new set of adventures.

"It's an ugly story, except for the girl," he writes. Nice line. Too bad there isn't really a girl in this story, unless you count one who is spotted on the street wearing gold lame genie's shoes, or another who tries to make him part of a Nielsen television survey.

That noir, hard-boiled style is better suited to someone writing in the spirit of James Ellroy (Ellroy expressed great admiration for Overworld) than to a data-oriented member of the espionage community. And one of the lessons he learned from his father, Kolb says, is that dreary, dogged research is a big part of penetrating the secrets of the espionage bureaucracy or, as he calls it, the "espiocracy."

His close familiarity with the histories of two veteran con men, Kolb says, is what drew him into the events that America at Night describes. The more visible of the two is Robert M. Sensi, who "could go into a revolving door behind you and come out ahead of you." Sensi has served time for embezzlement and fraud and has been a CIA operative.

Although Sensi has also been involved with the Bush family and the Republican National Committee, Kolb contends that there is no political animus at work in his pursuit of Sensi. And he points out that he voted for Reagan. Instead of having a partisan agenda, he says, he helped the Department of Homeland Security pursue two men who might have no qualms about helping terrorists, since they had no apparent qualms about anything else.

Kolb was also asked to find information about a lawyer named Richard Marshall Hirschfeld. As Overworld explains, they originally crossed paths when both traveled to Beirut, Lebanon, with Ali — or, as his name is best dropped here, Muhammad. It was not the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

According to the very tall Kolb, the very short Hirschfeld was "packaged and produced by the same studio that gave you the midlife Mickey Rooney." He adds that Hirschfeld was someone who "could sell fried snowballs to the great chefs of Europe."

Among Hirschfeld's claims to fame, as stated here, were a fraudulent effort to market "the world's only known cure for herpes," maneuvers to help wealthy foreign criminals enter the US and a parole scam (after Hirschfeld went to prison) involving Habitat for Humanity. The Washington Post described him as a "flashy fugitive" after he fled the US.

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