‘Safe Houses’ Goes Beyond the Typical Spy Story

Safe Houses by Dan FespermanIt’s especially satisfying to finish an excellent novel by a previously-unknown-to-me author who has written additional books I can look forward to reading. That’s what happened as a result of the Goodreads connection who recently recommended Dan Fesperman’s 2018 thriller “Safe Houses.”

For those unfamiliar with Goodreads, it’s a free website where members keep track of and share books they are reading, have read and want to read, including ratings and reviews; similarly, you can see what books your Goodreads friends are reading and reviewing. Goodreads friends can be people you know or those you connect with on the basis of their reviews and comments on the site.

I was already disposed to reading fiction penned by journalists even before my friend Marcy’s endorsement. Like a couple of my favorites, Laura Lippman and David Simon, Fesperman worked for the Baltimore Sun. His impressive credentials include work as a correspondent in 30 countries including war zones in Baghdad, Sarajevo, Berlin and Kabul, and previous novels that won the genre-prestigious John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award and The Dashiell Hammett Prize.

“Safe Houses” promised—and ended up delivering—some of my preferred fictional elements: solid spare storytelling based on research via historical documents and interviews (all cited by Fesperman in his Afterword); intrigue and suspense; a resonant setting; a narrative that moves fluidly between the events of two time periods that intersect in interesting ways. All that plus a Rainer Maria Rilke poem framing the book for my lit-major bias and a timely #MeToo theme for my feminist predisposition.

Here’s the story in brief, without spoilers: In 1979, 20-something American Helen Abell oversees the CIA’s safe houses—places for secret activities or refuge—in the ominous atmosphere of Cold War, still bifurcated Berlin. She learns quickly that the term, also the book’s ironic title, is a misnomer, especially for women of the time. In one safe house, Helen overhears and records a conversation that leads her into dangerous international intrigue; in another, by disrupting the rape of a field agent by her case officer, she becomes an accessory to murder as well as a target for a ruthless and powerful man.

Helen’s natural curiosity and need to do what is right compel her to investigate, resulting in a decades-long vendetta with dire consequences to her “average family,” whose rural Maryland farm appeared to be a safe house until the brutal murder occurs there 35 years later.

We hear the story in alternating chapters—both in real time as the “original sin” unfolds and through the efforts of Helen’s adult daughter Anna to understand why her brother murdered their parents and how it related to her mother’s secret past.

The Rilke poem, “Love Song,” that Helen recites to test the recording equipment, serves the narrative, too, reflecting the bond between the mother’s past and her daughter’s present. “Yet everything that touches us, me and you, takes us together like a violin’s bow, which draws one voice out of two separate strings.”

As for the #MeToo aspect, despite Helen’s interest in doing more than clerical work, she and her few female CIA employee peers were expected to know their place; they had lesser professional roles, usually of a secretarial or subservient nature, and were vulnerable to the more powerful men. When wronged, regardless of how severely, their complaints and damages were
swept under the rug.

Unlike many other male-authored popular spy novels—think Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum—Fesperman’s story is not consumed with almost superhuman male heroes and femme fatales or details of advanced (real or imagined) technical equipment. Instead, this book has a moral compass and relies on solid principles of fiction—solid plot, credible male and female characters and dialogue, and a suspenseful, wonderful story. I cannot wait to read more by Dan Fesperman!


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