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SAFE HOUSES
by Dan Fesperman
Knopf, July 2018
416 pages
$26.95
ISBN: 0525520191


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In 1979, Helen has turned a boring assignment in Berlin into a challenge: if she's going to be in charge of a handful of safe houses for spies who need to come in from the cold, she's going to manage them extremely well. She'd rather be in the field, but the old boy's network thinks she's better off being a secretive hausfrau. It's her own perfectionism that gets her in trouble. While making an unauthorized visit to test the recording equipment in one of the houses, unexpected guests arrive. As the tape runs, she hears their strange conversation, something about ponds and lakes, all unfamiliar code words. After discussing it with a friend who happens to be an old spook and a pleasant bed partner, he insists she return to the house to erase the tape immediately. Unfortunately while she's there, another visitor appears an agent she knows with one of his female sources. Soon she realizes what she's hearing downstairs is a sexual assault in progress. She intervenes and helps the frightened woman leave the house. Only when it's all over does she realize it's all on tape.

Thirty-five years later, after leading a quiet life on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Helen's cognitively disabled son carries a can of spray paint to the town's edge to make a subtraction from the population after shooting her and her husband in bed. Her daughter Anna wants to know how her gentle brother could have committed such a crime, and she enlists Henry, who admits to being "kind of" an investigator, in recreating her parents' final days. Their quest alternates in sections with Helen's story in Berlin as she tries to extricate herself from the consequences of being in a safe house at the wrong time.

Dan Fesperman is a masterful storyteller, and he layers the two storylines skillfully. The reader who might at one point feel their suspension of disbelief slipping will want to read the author's Afterword. The most incredible aspects of the plot are based on documents that you can examine, just as Anna and Henry do, in the National Archives. It takes a skilled writer to make a good story out of a truth stranger than fiction.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, June 2018

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