Dan Fesperman is one of America’s finest thriller writers, his work is inspired by years as a field reporter; Germany, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East. Each time he writes a novel Fesperman comes up with an original take on an important theme. Safe House cleverly addresses very modern themes while preserving the conventions of the classic spy story, thus proving the relevance of the genre today. He has consistently written thought-provoking novels that shine a light on the shady secret world. Safe House focuses on the way women were treated in and by the CIA during the Cold War and the lengths the system (people) will go to, to protect itselt (save face). This is an absorbing and intriguing story that is also important because it asks questions about the secret world left untouched until now.

Spy fiction took a long time to find it’s feet again after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Writers struggled to find the worthy bad buys. Too often popular writers settled on card board cut out Jihadis. Fesperman’s novels were always nuanced and complex, they have added to my understanding of extremism in the Islamic world. Safe Houses turns it’s guns on America’s spies and their nefarious activities, it’s set in Europe and America and is a direct challenge to our conceptions of self and the morality of actions carried out on our behalf.

Two brutal and tragic events thirty-five years and thousands of miles apart might appear to be unconnected were it not for Helen Shoat, nee Abell, witness to one, victim of the other:

1979, Helen Abell is new to Berlin, this is her first overseas posting. Chief of Station Ladd Harrington is condescending and dismissive but Helen does a good job. The safe houses, dotted around the city, are her responsibility, she does her own checks, visiting the properties. She’s at a safe house in Alt-Moabit when two men arrive, this is off the books. Curiosity gets the better of her and Helen tapes their conversation. They are talking in a code that makes no sense; ponds, Effies, bay? Helen doesn’t report it, she shouldn’t have been there, shouldn’t have recorded anything. Helen tells her lover, Clark Baucom, a grizzled old agent. Baucom tells her to go back and destroy the tape immediately. When she does she catches Kevin Galley, cryptonym Robert, raping one of his young agents. Now she has that on tape too. Galley is important to the agency and Helen has made an enemy.

2014, Posten, Maryland, Willard Shoat murders his parents, Tarrant and Helen:

“On the night Willard Shoat killed his parents, he walked barefoot to the edge of town with a can of red spray paint, out to the sign that said, ‘Entering POSTON, pop. 924.’ He took the clicking can, raised on his tiptoes, and opened fire. First he slashed out the number. Then he painted a new total to account for the subtraction of Mom and Dad: 921.”

No one can figure it out. He’s a bit slow but he loved his parents and Anna can’t get any sense from her brother. As neighbour Henry Mattick was a government investigator Anna asks him to look into it but Henry is hiding his own secret. The first thing they find out about Helen is that she used to work for the CIA, Anna had no idea.

The essence of a great spy novel is not the intrigue and the espionage, although there is plenty of that here, it’s the human factor; personal drivers, motivations, higher and lower values. Safe House is a triumph of understanding people. Fesperman has that journalistic desire to get under the skin of a story and the fiction writers skill of telling a story and Safe House is among the best of Fesperman’s novels. A great read.

I can also recommend Fesperman’s debut, Lie in the Dark (1999), the follow up, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows (2003), and my favourite, The Warlord’s Son (2004).

Paul Burke 4/4

Safe House by Dan Fesperman
Head of Zeus 9781788547864 hbk Dec 2018