A terrific memoir. Larry Kolb explicates the world of espionage and secrets with sagaciousness and savvy. This book is a stand-alone original.
As Kolb spins a tale of international intrigue in which he does everything from accompany Muhammad Ali on a mission to free American hostages in Beirut to introduce Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega to an Indian holy man, it's awfully tempting to consider him a hoaxster ŕ la Chuck Barris-but all it takes is a little online research to produce corroborating details. Kolb actually is connected to international arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi by marriage; stories in Indian newspapers confirm that government wants him in connection with a plot against a former premier involving that same holy man. Pretty soon, a reader will believe that Kolb, the son of a Cold War intelligence operative who grew up in post-WWII Japan and Germany, really was recruited by legendary spy Miles Copeland because his jet-setting lifestyle put him in all the right places. Slangily written from a safe house "on a sunny shore," Kolb's recollection of his training in the fundamentals of spycraft is a particularly engrossing section that will leave readers convinced they know enough to run their own clandestine operations. It's the centerpiece around which he weaves a slew of anecdotes stretching back to WWII, producing a cumulative effect that renders the whole story so amazing that readers will conclude that even the wildest bits-like his taking credit for rewriting the blueprints for the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal-have got to be true.
Forecast: As Bond-like as Kim Philby, but with a decidedly American accent, Kolb could turn out to have a sleeper hit; film rights have been bought by Mark Canton of Atmosphere Entertainment.
Association of Former Intelligence Officers
Amazing, but true! It would be easy to take Kolb's story as fiction in which only the names are real, names such as Muhammad Ali and Daniel Ortega. Kolb, however, really is wanted in India in connection with a plot against a former prime minister. It lends credibility to his narration of international intrigue. Kolb tells us he is the son of a Cold War intel operative and grew up in Japan and Germany before being recruited by the famed Miles Copeland. After recounting how he was trained in spycraft, he goes on to relate many an amazing tale. Don't wait for sources to confirm, just read and enjoy.
The Washington Post
In the world of espionage it helps to be a mensch. So, at least, asserts Larry J. Kolb, the son of a spy and a man of many faces: He was a former agent for Muhammad Ali (a job that gave him the best "cover" of his career), a stepson-in-law of Saudi entrepreneur Adnan Kashoggi, and a secret-stealer of such versatility that he plied his trade in Lebanon, Saudia Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Pakistan and India. In Overworld: The Life and Times of a Reluctant Spy (Riverhead, $25.95), Kolb explains the techniques by which he ingratiated himself in so many venues : "If you showed a bit of world-view rather than behaving like a tourist, if you bothered to learn a few sentences of the local language as soon as you arrived, so that, by the time you met the King or Prime Minister or just a delighted porter, you could greet him flawlessly in his own language, if you did not fawn but treated even the exalted like normal people who crawl around on the floor with their grandchildren, if you took flowers for their wives -- you would be well remembered and welcomed back."
Kolb learned his craft in part from Miles Copeland, whose career before spying for the CIA included a stint as a trumpeter with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and his wife, Lorraine, an innocent-looking blonde whose wartime specialties were "blowing up bridges and derailing German trains." Having recruited Kolb, Copeland explained why his training would be less than comprehensive: "Obvious professionalism can be as undesirable in spies as in prostitutes. . . . The KGB were the first to realize this. . . . The Soviets actually taught their agents less rather than more. So when their agents came under spot surveillance -- and almost everyone with access to sensitive materials or facilities is subject to routine spot surveillance -- they didn't display mannerisms which betrayed them and subjected them to full surveillance." And then Copeland added darkly, "Almost no one can beat full surveillance."
Kolb's … father was a senior U.S. intelligence agent, he absorbed the style if not the specifics of the game from Dad (he would eventually work with the CIA), he befriended and represented the retired Muhammad Ali for years, and he became a member of the inner circle of Saudi magnate Adnan Khashoggi. All this became a heady cocktail for Kolb, and it will be for readers, as we are seductively, seamlessly guided through a life of first-class travel and lodging, intimate encounters with the world's movers and shakers, and a peek into the mindset of a spy. It all seems too easy, and it was: Kolb eventually worked the wrong deal, finding himself an apparent target for assassination by Indian secret police and living in a Florida safe house, from where he says he wrote this book. A great read, but consider the source.
Kolb takes the reader on a rollicking, stream-of-consciousness tour of his remarkable life as an international businessman who also actively spied for the United States. He was raised in a family of spies and grew up traveling the world as his father shuttled from posting to posting. Recruited by the CIA in his twenties, Kolb initially fled to the world of business, but after a stint as Muhammad Ali's personal financial adviser, he ended up under the tutelage of CIA spook Miles Copeland. Soon he found himself working undercover in places like Beirut, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Here, Kolb shares his insights into the craft of spying and describes both the daily boredom (interrupted by moments of terror) and the sometimes hilarious misadventures that often result when confusion and misinformation combine with serious purposes. By his late forties, Kolb has annoyed
enough of the wrong people that he is now living in a safehouse somewhere in Florida, where he finally has time to write his memoirs. This is a fascinating story, even if we will never know how much is actually true.
Beatrice.com, Ron Hogan
Shades of Charles McCarry, even! I greatly enjoyed Larry Kolb's Overworld, a real-life thriller from a "reluctant spy" who out-Zeligs Zelig. It's tempting to consider him a hoaxster," I told Publishers Weekly readers a few months ago, "but all it takes is a little online research to produce corroborating details." That's right: as far as I can tell, everything that can be checked out checks out. The real-life intrigues are fascinating, and he's got a great eye for the details of spycraft, so Overworld could appeal to folks who like Dominick Dunne-style immersions into the world of the rich and famous as easily as it will appeal to thriller fans.
Foreign Service Journal
If Larry Kolb were not a real person reminiscing about his experiences in covert operations, one might imagine he had stepped out from the pages of an Eric Ambler novel. Overworld: The Life and Times of a Reluctant Spy seems modeled on Ambler's successful prose formula of drawing an unwitting Everyman into a web of international espionage and intrigue.
Yet while possessed of amble measures of innocence and naiveté, Kolb was, in truth, no ordinary bystander swept up in the secret war of clandestine operations. His father, a high-ranking U.S. intelligence officer, and his father's colleagues gave him early instruction in the covert arts. Some of those lessons will be familiar to Foreign Service readers as basic political tradecraft-e.g., taking flowers to the wives of contacts, learning rudimentary language skills in host countries, wearing "quiet clothes." Kolb also discusses the effective communication of useful information up the chain of command, especially taking the time to write less. But other lessons Kolb learned later might well benefit FS readers, such as how to have a secure conversation and how to elicit data from interlocutors. Asking the opinions of contacts, and drawing little pieces of people's stories out of them is not only good manners-it's a subtle form of interrogation to collect useful information.
Despite his background, Kolb spurned the CIA's first efforts to recruit him, opting instead for a career in business and, eventually, life among the jet set. He founded one of the first adventure travel agencies, had a tempestuous one-year marriage to golfer Jan Stephenson, the Anna Kournikova of her day, and became an agent for and close friend of Muhammad Ali. On a secret mission sanctioned by Vice President Bush, Kolb accompanied Ali to Lebanon in 1985 to seek the release of American hostages Benjamin Weir, Peter Kilburn, Lawrence Jenco, Jeremy Levin, and William Buckley.
Through his association with Ali, Kolb met and befriended a wide variety of international luminaries. He became a confidant of Saudi middleman and "financial high-wire artist" Adnan Khashoggi and married Khashoggi's adopted daughter. The company he kept and the family into which he married solidified Kolb's bona fides as an insider with enormous potential as a clandestine operative.
Meanwhile, CIA co-founder Miles Copeland launched another effort to recruit Kolb into the secret world Copeland had helped create and, this time, Kolb was receptive. Kolb became Copeland's right-hand man, his eyes and ears (and sometimes mouthpiece) throughout much of the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. The two even collaborated on several white papers for the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, including one that fused Khashoggi's proposal of a "Marshall Plan" for the Middle East with Reagan's Mideast peace plan.
Technically, Kolb was a business partner of Copeland. But he could never be absolutely certain for whom he was working at any given time, or even on which project in the "overworld"-his father's term for the realm of shadowy figures-behind-the-figureheads who secretly shape events.
Much of his fascinating narrative is devoted to the "St. Kitts Affair," in which Kolb, with the blessings of Copeland and Khashoggi, became enmeshed in an attempt to help his friend Rajiv Gandhi win re-election. The convoluted intrigue surrounding his involvement landed him in serious trouble with the Indian judiciary, trouble from which he is only now emerging. Hiding out in a Florida safe house for several years did, however, give Kolb the time and introspective leisure to pen these memoirs of his life so far. Readers interested in the world of espionage and covert statecraft will be most grateful.
Overworld is a page-turner extraordinaire, so it is no surprise that Hollywood has bought film rights to the book. But don't wait for the film. It could not possibly rivet your attention as much as Kolb's own narrative.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
The book begins with Kolb writing in vivid detail about life as an "intelligence brat," living in Japan, Europe and the Middle East, where his father operates as a master spy. Kolb had many mysterious "uncles," who would visit his family's various residences for dinner and a chat with his father. Like a child spying for Santa on Christmas Eve, the preteen Kolb finds a perch on the stairway and gets an early education in the clandestine world of espionage, eavesdropping on conversations his father has with fellow spies. Kolb's childhood is an adventure, but he initially rejects following in his father's career path. He is smart and creative, and by the time he is in his late 20s, his business acumen has landed him a plum job as one of Muhammad Ali's agents.
Through Ali, Kolb meets Adnan Khashoggi, a billionaire Saudi businessman and arms dealer. Kolb becomes part of the jet set, enjoying wealth by association. What has this got to do with spying? Everything and nothing. The contacts passed down by Kolb's father and those made by the son in the business world provide access to some of the most powerful people in the world-heads of state, athletes, wealthy businessmen, celebrities and tyrants.
After turning down earlier overtures to follow in his father's shadowy footsteps, Kolb is successfully recruited into the world of espionage by Miles Copeland, one of the founders of the Central Intelligence Agency. Copeland, by the way, is the father of Stewart Copeland, drummer and co-founder of the rock group the Police. Kolb is the spy world's Forrest Gump, showing up everywhere and seemingly knowing every dignitary of the past 50 years.
As Miles Copeland tells Kolb in his recruiting pitch, "Only one quality is essential for a spy, and that's access to a target." Kolb has that access. He also has patience, an eye for detail, the guts of a cat burglar and the ability to insinuate himself into settings off limits to the common man. He's a natural.
Overworld is at its most entertaining when it reads like a spy novel. But mostly it's a book about a spy, inside baseball for the intelligence community. Kolb says he is writing from a safe house on a beach in Florida because he is a marked man. But his transitions from the present to stories of his past are uneven. A chunk of Overworld belongs in a biography of Ali, not a book about a spy. There are some intriguing anecdotes that will make readers turn pages for more. Kolb asserts that a young and more subdued the Rev. Al Sharpton spied on Ali and other black leaders as a government informant, to avoid prosecution for alleged drug involvement. There is a chilling passage about a soldier-an Army marksman-who avoided prosecution for murder while stationed in Germany by agreeing to assassinate 15 civilian and military targets in Vietnam.
There's probably a spy in every crowd, Kolb learned from his father. And Copeland gives him advice that became the mantra of TV's The X Files: "Trust no one." Kolb was recruited with Ali by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush for a secret mission to Iran and Beirut, to negotiate the release of hostages with the Ayatollah Khomeini and terrorists. There are dealings with Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and excursions into Afghanistan and Middle East hot spots.
Given the secretive nature of his craft, readers are left to either marvel at, or question, how Kolb could have been involved in so many significant events.
Heartland, Bob Spear
Overworld is one of the most fascinating memoirs I’ve ever read. As a veteran of 25
years in military intelligence, this reviewer believes the author to be the real
deal. His knowledge of tradecraft is impeccable and his access to world-ruling
decision makers is uncanny.
One of the best memoirs I have read in a very long time is Overworld: The Life and
Times of a Reluctant Spy by Larry J. Kolb ($16.00, Riverhead Books, member of
Penguin Putnam, softcover). It has to be real because not even the best writer of
fiction could have come up with such a remarkable story. The son of a true-life US
spy, Kolb moved from nation to nation as his father’s profession took the family to
places filled with excitement and danger. He was taught spy craft by a father who
kept his own life secret from his son to the extent that he could. What Kolb learned
was that spying was often a matter of reports, paperwork, and nothing that resembled
the James Bond version, interspersed with moments of real danger. He also learned
that anyone is capable of betrayal. The sons of the "old boy network" were
frequently recruited into the spy profession, but Kolb resisted early invitations.
Instead, after college he led an extraordinary existence initially creating a tour
business, then setting up golf and tennis events, and then becoming an agent for
Muhammad Ali who had become a close friend. Together they traveled the world. In the
process, Kolb had access to and was friends with world leaders, the rich and famous.
When again recruited by the CIA, Kolb agreed. What emerges is a story of two worlds.
There is the one in which most of us live and the shadow world of conspiracies,
hidden by a wall of lies. His story is told in such a fashion that one is pulled
into both of these worlds and reluctant to put the book down for any reason.