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Posts Tagged ‘Dan Fesperman’

It’s no secret that I spent my vacation reading assorted crime novels, chilling out in the summer heat.  Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman (Knopf, digital galley) is both a Cold War spy tale and a contemporary murder mystery. In 1979 West Berlin, young CIA recruit Helen Abell is frustrated by an old boys’ club, relegated to watching over safe houses where field agents secretly meet their sources. Then one day, she inadvertently tapes a coded conversation between two unknown men, and is warned off by her older lover, an experienced agent. Returning to the safe house, she interrupts a vicious agent “Robert” sexually assaulting a young German woman, who later turns up dead. When Helen tries to implicate Robert in the crime, she becomes a target, but two other women in the CIA offer covert help. Fesperman splices this tense tale with one playing out 35 years later on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A farmer and his wife are shot in their bed, and their developmentally disabled son Willard is arrested. His older sister Anna refuses to believe her gentle brother guilty, and hires Henry Mattick, a former Justice Department investigator who just happens to be renting the house next door.  Their search for clues to Anna’s mother’s hidden past alternates with Helen’s spy adventures, the two narratives running on parallel tracks that inevitably converge. Fesperman (The Double Game, Lie in the Dark) knows his spy stuff, and Safe Houses is a clever, intelligent thriller with a couple of neat twists. I also like how the two stories echo one another. Why did Anna’s mother hang on to a tacky Paris snowglobe? It’s also a timely book, in light of the MeToo movement and the current swampy political scene. We all want a safe house.

Rosalie Knecht’s  wry Who is Vera Kelly? (Tin House Books, digital galley) also is told in two alternating narratives of almost equal interest. Growing up in the 1950s with an alcoholic mother, Vera Kelly has a rough time, separated from her best girlfriend and then deemed incorrigible and sent to reform school. Ten years later, she’s a fledgling CIA spy in Buenos Aires, pretending to be a student to blend in with campus radicals with supposed Soviet ties, as well as eavesdropping on government bureaucrats. But then she’s betrayed during a coup and forced into hiding, eventually fleeing the city. Her gritty coming-of-age in  New York is what brings her to the attention of the CIA, but her early years can’t really compete with her double-life exploits in Argentina. Throughout, however, Vera Kelly is a scrappy, resourceful outsider looking for a life in which she belongs.

Venice provides the atmospheric backdrop for the latest adventures of the intrepid Mary Russell and husband Sherlock Holmes in Laurie R. King’s Island of the Mad (Bantam/Random House, digital galley). The year is 1925, and Russell is on the trail of a friend’s aristocratic aunt, who recently vanished from the Bedlam lunatic asylum with her nurse. Holmes, meanwhile, is on a secret diplomatic mission to observe the rising Fascist scene for brother Mycroft.  Mingling on the Lido with the likes of society hostess Elsa Maxwell and composer Cole Porter leads to a locked island asylum, a Mussolini-backed conspiracy and a grand costume ball. Russell commandeers a gondola, and Holmes inspires a Porter classic. A good time is had by all, except the villains, of course.

 Gatsby meets Tom Ripley meets the movie Metropolitan in Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature (Doubleday, digital galley), a cut-glass crystal tale of obsessive friendship. Louise is a poor aspiring writer when rich socialite Lavinia decides they’ll be new best friends. Before long, Louise is caught up in the endless party of Lavinia’s life, drinking champagne under the stars and deliberately ignoring signs that’s she’s just another plaything of Lavinia’s. Besides, Louise likes Lavinia’s money and all that it buys, from the clothes to the makeovers to the glam friends with names like Athena Maidenhead. Still, all this can only end in tears. The question is whose tears and just what will be recorded for posterity on social media. Louise or Lavinia? Which one is bad, mad and dangerous to know?

Maybe I’ve read too many boarding school/secret society novels, but Elizabeth Klehfoth’s All These Beautiful Strangers (HarperCollins, digital galleys) seems overly familiar. Charlotte “Charlie” Calloway’s mother Grace Fairchild vanished when she was seven, presumed to have run away from her difficult marriage to wealthy Alistair Calloway. Rumors that Alistair might have had something to do with Grace’s disappearance were quickly squashed by his influential family. But when Charlie, now 17, begins the initiation process to become an “A,” the secret society at her New England boarding school, she discovers that the A’s history intersects with her own. Flashbacks in Grace’s voice and then Alistair’s reveal Charlie is on the right track, although her quest to discover the truth is hindered by the senior As’ sway over the school — and some ponderous and improbable plotting on the author’s part.

If you liked Riley Sager’s Final Girls — which I did, mostly — you’ll be pleased with The Last Time I Lied (Dutton, Penguin). I was, mostly. Painter Emma Davis is haunted by her short stint at Camp Nightingale 15 years ago. Her three cabin mates disappeared one night, never to be seen again, and the camp had to close. Now she paints her lost friends’ likenesses in every large canvas, but then hides the girls with brushstrokes of dark forest scenes. When Francesca Harris-White, the wealthy owner of Camp Nightingale, decides to reopen the camp for scholarship students, she hires Emma as a painting counselor — and puts her in Dogwood Cabin with three teenage campers. Eventually, they also disappear, and Emma’s truthfulness and mental health, then and now, is called into question. Flashbacks to her first stay at Nightingale and many games of Two Truths and A Lie show Emma to be a most unreliable narrator. Sager strikes some false notes with his summer camp setting, which is more like the camps I knew back in the day than those circa 2003. One of his supposedly big revelations is no surprise, but a later one is, as was the case with Final Girls. In the end, Sager proves adept with campfire smoke and mirrors.

 

 

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letterwriterNew York City, 1942. The war overseas plays out in the homeland, too. The very day Woodrow Cain, a former North Carolina cop with a tarnished reputation, takes a job with the NYPD, the luxury liner Normandie burns on the waterfront. There’s a black smudge on the skyline, and Cain feels his new life is “as full of loss and betrayal as the one he’d left behind.”

Betrayal, of course, is the very stuff of spy fiction, and Dan Fesperman expertly meshes crime and espionage, corruption and conspiracy in The Letter Writer (Knopf, paperback galley). An unidentified body in the Hudson has Cain stymied until a mysterious man calling himself Danzinger directs him to the city’s “Little Deutschland” of Nazi sympathizers. Danzinger is the title character, an older, well-educated immigrant fluent in five languages, who deals in information while translating and writing letters for his fellow immigrants on the Lower East Side. Over the last few months, he has become increasingly aware of the peril looming overseas as his clients’ secrets darken and more of their letters go unanswered. Cain initially resists Danzinger’s help, but he has trouble trusting anyone in New York, including his colleagues at the 14th precinct and the wealthy, well-connected father of his ex-wife.

The plot is wonderfully complicated, but Fesperman’s crisp scenes reveal one secret after another, both those involving the murder investigation, and personal back stories. Cain’s young daughter arrives in New York, and he begins seeing a woman he meets through Danzinger. The war breeds “creative alliances” — as Danzinger puts it — and offers new opportunities for the Mob. Cain’s encounters with real-life gangsters Albert Anastasia and Meyer Lansky bristle with tension and suspense. Still, danger rises from an unexpected quarter. Bullets find a target.

Despite the high-wire action near end, The Letter Writer is more like Danzinger, a thoughtful, learned risk-taker holding secrets close. My kind of thriller.

cityofsecretsJerusalem, 1945. Jossi Brand, a Latvian Jewish refugee who survived the Nazi death camps, drives a taxi through the winding streets. He tries to be casual at British checkpoints as he hands over his forged identity papers, supplied, like his name and car, by the Jewish underground. A member of a small cell tied to the Haganah, he is haunted by his past and memories of his lost family, including his beloved wife Katya. By day, he drives tourists from one historic sight to another. At night, he chauffeurs the widow Eva, a fellow cell member, to her assignations. When it rains, he still can smell the blood in the backseat leftover from the unknown man he ferried to the Belgian hospice under cover of darkness.

Stewart O’Nan takes a noir turn in his compact new novel, City of Secrets (Viking, review copy), which is taut as a trip wire. Although narrow in scope, it is morally complex as Brand is further drawn into the Zionist resistance and his missions become more dangerous and potentially violent. Questions are discouraged, paranoia flourishes. Brand learns how to use explosives. He comes under suspicion as an informer. The British crack down on suspected illegal refugees, sending them by bus to detention camps. The militant Irgun retaliate by planning an attack that will have profound consequences for the future of Palestine. Brand wonders if this is any way to live.

O’Nan provides some historical context in an afterwards, but it helps if you’ve heard of the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, or at least have read Leon Uris’ Exodus. But while I’m sure his research was meticulous, the names of the streets aren’t what give the book its authenticity. It’s the way O’Nan gets inside his characters’ heads. In his last novel, West of Sunset, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald. In Songs for the Missing, it was the family of a missing teen, and in Last Night at the Lobster, the workers at a closing chain eatery. Here it is Brand, a survivor who drifts into terrorism, a  man who has lost everything but hope. “He wanted the revolution — like the world — to be innocent, when it had never been.”

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If you know where to find Checkpoint Charlie, how to follow Moscow Rules, and can quote from The Third Man, then Dan Fesperman has a book for you. In The Double Game, he pays homage to the classic espionage novels of the Cold War era even as he constructs a clever spy tale.

Former reporter Bill Cage begins to feel like he’s fallen down the rabbit hole of one the espionage tales he read as a Foreign Service brat growing up in Prague, Berlin, Budapest and Vienna in the 1960s and ’70s.  Someone is leaving him cryptic clues harking back to Cage’s old interview with Edwin Lemaster, in which the CIA spook- turned- spy novelist admitted he had toyed with the idea of being a double agent. The anonymous writer suggests there’s more to the story, and his intriguing missives send Cage off from his boring PR job to visit his diplomat father in Vienna. Soon, he’s puzzling over more literary clues in the surprise company of an old girlfriend, Litzi, who may know more than she’s telling.

The Double Game wears its knowledge lightly, thanks to Fesperman’s twisty plot and play on the classic themes of deceit and betrayal. Still, readers of le Carre, Deighton, and earlier greats, will appreciate the numerous literary references, as well as the visits to antique bookstores in European capitals where the mysterious “Source Dewey” plied his tradecraft. An eccentric book scout, Lothar, keeps turning up, as well as the cohort of a retired agent. And a former CIA researcher named Valerie (!) decries her similarities to le Carre’s fictional Connie Sachs, but she sounds just like her as she recalls one secret operation: “Then, in early sixty-five, Headlight struck gold. A man he met in Budapest. On a tram car of all places, right as he was rolling across the Danube on the Margit Bridge. Source Nijinsky.”

Charles Cumming’s nimble A Foreign Country takes its title from the famous L.P. Hartley line from The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” When designate MI6 chief  Amelia Levene goes off the grid, the service taps disgraced former agent Thomas Kell to find her. Given this chance to get back in the game, Kell reluctantly agrees and rather quickly tracks down Levene in a Tunisian resort. But that’s just one byway on a winding route taking Kell (and readers) into the long-ago past, where a French expatriate in Tunis had an affair with a British nanny, as well as more recent events — the murder of a French couple in Egypt, and a kidnapping in Paris. Even if you guess where the story’s going, it’s fun to follow the cat-and-mouse game from a Marseilles ferry to an English country house.

Love and loyalty are also called into question in Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off, a different kind of Cold War tale, narrated by a young PLO operative posing as a student in 1989 London. Michel details his day-to-day errands as a courier for Abu Leila, the mentor who picked him from a Lebanese refugee camp after his his parents were murdered, and who supervised his schooling in Cyprus and his training in East Berlin and the Soviet Union. (KGB agents, we learn, read le Carre for the tradecraft.) As Michel gets to know his rooming-house neighbor Helen, a prickly graduate student, he splices more of his lonely past into the procedural-like narrative. When a routine operation goes tragically awry,  Michel is left holding a sealed envelope his enemies are willing to kill for. He and Helen escape to Scotland, where his education as a spy is tested and a thrilling chase ensues.

Open Book: Dan Fesperman is an old friend and colleague, and I thank him again for the hardcover copy of The Double Game (Knopf). I also had access to a digital version on NetGalley, where I obtained the e-galley of Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off (Little, Brown). I read a paperback advance reading copy of Charles Cumming’s A Foreign Country (St. Martin’s Press), after signing up for a giveaway on Shelf Awareness.

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