Many a Berlin-set spy novel comprises a tale of two cities which plays out during the heated tensions of the Cold War. Dan Fesperman's latest spy thriller, "Winter Work," offers a refreshing variant on this by immersing its reader in the murky corners and wooded surroundings of the German capital at a brief yet pivotal stage in the city's history seldom depicted in fiction.
It is February 1990 and the Cold War is thawing. The Wall has recently fallen, East Germany is coming undone, and Stasi agents are either lying low or selling state secrets to the highest bidder. One disaffected Stasi agent, Emil Grimm, finds himself with other matters to think about when he comes across the body of his neighbor and colleague, Lothar Fischer, near his dacha in a patch of forest north of Berlin.
Two officers on the scene reveal their differences: One young detective is determined to catch a killer; the other is more concerned about fighting the new political order. Emil's priorities are twofold: He needs to complete a high-stakes mission that he and Lothar started, and he has to find a CIA agent he can trust — one with whom he can barter a file of sensitive information in exchange for safe harbor and a new start for himself, his sickly wife, and her caretaker.
That agent turns out to be Claire Saylor, who is in Berlin as part of a "mop-up action" against her agency's defeated enemies. When she first makes contact with Emil there is inevitable discomfort — they are "two people trained to mistrust, searching for any sign that it might be safe to do otherwise." In time, though, they suspend their doubts, pool their resources and set out to ensnare several particularly vengeful "comrades in arms."
"Winter Work" is a gripping, tightly plotted old-school spy novel. As the Baltimore-based writer informs us in his acknowledgments, it is also fiction born of historical fact: One plot strand takes its origins from a genuine CIA operation, and some of the characters, such as spy supremo Markus Wolf, are incarnations of real-life figures. Claire makes a welcome return from Fesperman's last book, "The Cover Wife," as does another character whose true identity is cannily kept under wraps until a decisive moment.
Occasionally Fesperman's prose comes across as either lofty (men are "fellows") or perfunctory ("his eyes as cold as January"). And despite all the dark deeds and cloak-and-dagger intrigue, the book lacks both the subtlety and the complexity of a more nuanced John le Carré work.
However, there is still a great deal to relish, not least a number of precision-tooled set pieces, from a taut safe-breaking scene to an exciting assault on a safe house. Berlin — "spying's most storied theme park" — is vividly rendered, as is a time of convulsive change and the hopes, anxieties and machinations of those caught up in the chaos.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Dan Fesperman
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 352 pages, $28.