The Perfect August Read for Spy Novel Fans

 

In my many years as crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, one of the best mysteries I ever reviewed was Dan Fesperman’s Lie in the Dark, set in war-torn Bosnia. It was brilliantly plotted, beautifully written, and stunning in every possible way.

His latest book is just as thrilling.  Set in the chaos of a crumbling communist East Germany not long after the Berlin Wall has been breached in 1989, Winter Work tells twin stories of an American CIA agent and a former Stasi agent whose lives connect in surprising ways. 

Long before East Germany (the DDR) was falling apart, high-ranking Emil Grimm felt “irretrievably” convinced “that the state he served had become corrupted beyond salvation, and that he had become a willing party to its inevitable decline.”  Having relished his Stasi privileges and having used his own power for revenge, he was filled with remorse–and that’s not his only secret.  Grimm’s personal life involves a bizarre sort of ménage-à-trois which might condemn him in the eyes of even liberal-minded Westerners.

Grimm and a Stasi colleague have hatched a plan to escape from the ruins of their country which hasn’t even reached its 50th birthday, by attempting to trade information to the Americans.  But they’re not the only ones on the market as “CIA people were scurrying all over the Berlin area, seeking to make friends of their old enemies in hopes of prying lose their secrets.”

One of those CIA operatives is young Claire Saylor, tasked with contacting a Stasi agent whose name she doesn’t know and whose information is mysterious but presumably valuable.  Her on-site boss is critical, suspicious and withholding, and Saylor has to rely on a retired agent for backup on each rendezvous.  His spycraft augments hers and they forge a dynamic and entertaining  bond.  Unbeknownst to Saylor, however, the KGB has her and Grimm in its sites and a mission that looked relatively simple becomes hair-raising, dangerous, and bloody.

That’s because in the DDR, someone is always watching: “After more than forty years of training their citizens to keep their eyes one another, one could never take lightly the idea of having your movements go unnoticed in the German Democratic Republic.”

Inspired by real events and deeply researched, Winter Work has everything you expect in a top-notch mystery/thriller: characters to care about, a fascinating setting, and a plot that keeps you guessing and on edge.  Fesperman was a Berlin-based journalist and his knowledge of the city is crucial in making this book both intimate and electrifying.  There aren’t many crime novels I lose sleep over, but this was one of them and I didn’t mind because the rewards were so rich and satisfying.

The short opening paragraph of Winter Work perfectly sets the book’s tone:

In winter, the forest bares its secrets.  Hill and vale are revealed through disrobing trees.  Mud and bone arise from dying weeds.  Woodpeckers, taking notice, pry deeper on leafless limbs and rotting logs.  Their drumbeat goes out like a warning.

Lev Raphael is the author of ten crime novels and seventeen other books in many genres.  A former guest author at Michigan State University, he currently mentors, coaches, and edits writers at https://www.writewithoutborders.com.

Review: John le Carré’s Cunning New Spy Novel Will Keep You Guessing

Is there any writer who knows the workings of intelligence agencies better than John le Carré?  The famed novelist served in MI5 and MI6 and every book of his opens up those worlds with stunning authenticity.

His latest is set in contemporary London, a city over-heated by Russian and Ukrainian billions snatching up real estate. Nat is a middle-aged, slightly stuffy, introspective handler of agents who is finally back from missions abroad and expecting a much quieter life. Ed is a young, gangling, motormouth  “researcher” who is bursting with scathing opinions about Brexit, the United Kingdom, and Donald Trump.  He rants and Nat listens with only occasional comments.

What’s brought this odd couple together? Badminton. That’s right. Nat, who’s the novel’s narrator, is a champion player at a ritzy club where Ed seeks him out in order to challenge him.

Since this is a spy novel, you wonder immediately if either of them is telling the truth about themselves and what their motives are in this relationship–though how they feel about the sport seems real enough.  And the game itself, as Nat describes it, sounds a bit like spying: “Badminton is stealth, patience, speed and improbable recovery. It’s lying in wait to unleash your ambush.”

Ed’s brashness may just be due to his youth, but the witty, cultivated, silky smooth way Nat tells their story raises alarm bells for any fan of spy novels–and of course for the countless readers of one of our most admired authors of the genre.  What is he up to?  What has he done?  Why is he recounting this tale and who is his audience?

The story unreels.  The two men play, they grab a drink after their games, they talk. Well, Ed talks. Ed overflows with opinions about how Brexit is a colossal disaster, ditto the Trump presidency, and even though he agrees, you have to wonder why Nat bothers listening.  In part, it’s boredom with his new assignment: being in charge of a small Russia-focused London intelligence outpost that feels like Cinderella left behind while her stepsisters flounce off to the Prince’s ball.

But life at that sleepy little substation suddenly turns dramatic with a surprising resignation, hard work for a mission that’s aborted, Nat’s unexpected trip to meet a cynical old agent of his in the Czech Republic, and the search for a highly-placed traitor.  As the story heats up amidst inter-service rivalry and bureaucratic sniping, Ed seems to fade from view until he and Nat watch the notorious TV appearance of Trump and Putin at Helsinki.

That bizarre encounter with the press is matched by one delicious twist after another in Agent Running in the Field.  The book triumphs in multiple ways.  First there’s the author’s enthralling exploration of spycraft and intelligence tools that makes you feel you’re being taken through a secret museum with an excellent tour guide in Nat.

Then there’s the voice of that guide: elegant, seductive, amusing, with a touch of world-weariness.  Or as he might put it–because Nat loves tossing out  the odd bit of French–a soupçon d’ennui.  And finally, Nat and his wife, a successful human rights lawyer, make some surprising decisions that blow up everything you thought was going to happen.

Fast-paced, wildly topical, and worthy of another prestige mini-series like The Night Manager, John le Carré’s latest novel is as thought-provoking as any he’s written in over fifty justly celebrated years.  It’s a fast read, and it’s a devastating look at power, loyalty, and the current chaos of international relations.

Lev Raphael is the author of State University of Murder and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He’s reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and many other media outlets.  His intro online creative writing workshop “Mystery Writing 1.0” runs December 1-31.