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.

“Transcription” Is The Dullest WW II Novel I’ve Read In Years

When I started reviewing crime fiction and other genres for the Detroit Free Press back in the 90s, I made an odd discovery.  Reviewers, friends, acquaintances would be raving about a book or an author.  I’d get a review copy and think, “Huh?  What am I missing?”  I remember one book that was hailed across the country in almost ridiculous terms, with one major reviewer gushing that it wasn’t just a book, it was an experience.

Well, isn’t reading every book an experience of some kind?

The second part of this discovery was that when I’d be out on tour for one of my own books, when it came time for Q&A, eventually someone would ask about one of these books the whole world seemed to worship and adore.  The questions always came a bit tentatively, as if it was heretical to even raise them.  I would be honest but focus on something technical.  For instance, with one wild best seller, I said I just didn’t believe the voice was the voice of a teenager.

I’ve been observing the love fest for Kate Atkinson for awhile. Friends have urged me to read Life After Life or Case Histories, and I just couldn’t get into them.  Then a best friend sent me three of her books as holiday gifts.  I picked Transcription because it was the shortest, and I was determined to finish it so we could discuss it.  This is the story of a young woman, Juliet Armstrong, drawn into the fringes of England intelligence in 1940. Her job is typing up transcriptions of bugged conversations of British Nazi sympathizers.  If it sounds dull, it is.

Nothing dramatic happens until halfway, and even then, the drama is relative. Eventually something more exciting does take place, but as WW II books go, this is a sleeper.  I have nothing against war novels that are literary fiction: One of my favorites is Helen Humphreys’ Coventry, which is poetic and intensely dramatic.  But Transcription was annoying in a number of ways.  Apparently shifting decades is one of Atkinson’s “things.”  I found it frustrating.  A straightforward narrative would have ramped up the tension.

But the narrative itself was more awkward and off-putting than the structure.  Juliet is given to incessant thinking about her thinking and to making silly puns.  When told to keep an ear out, she notes that she has two.  Hah.  Hah.  The trivial focus on her mental commentary is relentless and her observations are sometimes ridiculously banal: “But then, what constituted real?  Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?”

There’s a plot twist at the end that doesn’t quite relieve the boredom of the previous 250+ pages. There’s also so much tea drinking that after awhile you begin to wonder if the book is meant to be some kind of spoof of British fiction.

After finishing, I found that a host of highly disappointed readers on Amazon found similar problems with the book.  Me, I read it out of loyalty to my friend, and finally out of morbid curiosity: could it really go on like this page after page?  It did.

With twenty years of university teaching behind him, Lev Raphael offers a range of creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com “Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael is like seeing ‘Blade Runner’ for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, Michigan