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‘Safe Houses’ is filled with twists and turns



For the Monitor
Monday, September 03, 2018

Dan Fesperman’s latest outing is Safe Houses, a spy novel with two interweaved narratives that occur nearly 40 years apart. One story features Helen Abel, a budding U.S. spy in Cold-War era West Berlin, whose curiosity and ambition dangerously exceed her experience. The second story, set in the present, features her grown daughter, Anna Shoat. She teams up with Henry Mattick, a conveniently idle man with investigative talents, who for murky reasons of his own, helps her investigate the recent murder of her parents.  

Sometime after the end of her CIA career, Helen ended up in rural Maryland as the wife of a farmer. She dies in her bed, alongside her husband, shot, execution-style by her autistic son, Willard, in some sort of trance.

How do these threads connect? How does the intrepid Helen survive the perils of pursuing a just cause in the amoral world of a spy outpost in 1979 Berlin? Why did Willard, withdrawn but never violent, cold-bloodedly slay his parents in their beds? And does that murder have anything to do with the elusive drifter who recently befriended him?

Fesperman, a former foreign correspondent, with 11 novels to his name, has matured from a promising writer to a proven one. He reliably delivers thrilling stories with appealing characters that along the way introduce the reader to hidden sides of intriguing places or situations. He began his career with a mystery set in Sarajevo, a city under constant sniper fire during the Serb-Croat conflict in the 1980s, followed by novels set in Guantanamo Bay, Dubai, Afghanistan, New York in the 1950s, and, in 2014, the view from the joystick of a military drone pilot. In Safe Houses, Fesperman returns to post-war Europe, a favored destination for him.

Safe Houses begins with the suffocating workplace of a CIA spy station in Berlin. Helen has the relatively menial job of overseeing several safe houses, and she is struggling to gain respect amid conflicting personalities. She overhears and observes several events that lead her to increasing jeopardy.

In some of his novels, Fesperman has toyed with the spy novel genre, exploring the world of espionage through the lens of a resourceful, somewhat knowledgeable amateur or a newcomer. Helen, the most interesting of the protagonists in Safe Houses, for example, has been exposed to the tradecraft of the profession but has little field experience and has not succumbed to its inevitable cynicism.

Helen is no superspy and reacts as the typical reader might if he or she was in her place. This makes the danger more tangible and exciting, and the solving the novel’s puzzles more compelling than reading the extraordinary exploits of, say, a Jason Bourne, James Bond or Alec Leamus, the world-weary hero of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Despite having read many spy novels, I often lose track of some plot lines, and tend to be forgiving of whether that is due to an unaddressed loose end or a detail I have forgotten. When I read Fesperman’s books, I remember to not get too uptight about every detail. Instead, I stay alert, turn the page, and remain poised to react along with the main characters to the next twist in the tale.

(Dan Wise, a freelance writer, lives in Concord. You can email your own book review to features@cmonitor.com)