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Saturday 14 September 2019

‘Safe Houses’ by Dan Fesperman

Published by Head of Zeus Ltd,
11 July 2019.
ISBN 978-1-78854788-8 (PB)

In Safe Houses the narrative alternates between two sets of characters, two main locations and two time zones. Towards the end of the cold war in 1979 Helen Abell is a lowly employee who manages four safe houses for the West Berlin station of the CIA.  Helen is only twenty-three and longs for the excitement of a field officer’s job though there is little chance of this given the prevailing sexist attitudes of that era. Thirty-five years later, in the rural village of Poston on the eastern shore of Maryland USA, we meet Helen’s daughter Anna Shoat.  She is nearly thirty, has no connections with espionage of any sort, and had no idea that her mother had ever been a spy.

Anna hasn’t lived in Maryland since she went to college and has only returned because her brother, Willard, who is in his twenties but has the mental age of a young child, has shot his mother Helen and his father in cold blood.  Anna needs to understand why her brother would have done such a thing. He loved his parents and was loved by them.  She engages the help of Henry Mattick, a newcomer to Poston whose job was to keep a watch on visitors to the Shoat’s house.  But why was he there and whom was he reporting back to?

The answers to Anna’s and Henry’s questions appear to be rooted in Helen’s former work in Berlin. On an unscheduled visit to one of her safe houses Helen had inadvertently witnessed two events of which she shouldn’t have had any knowledge.  She overheard and recorded an incomprehensible, coded meeting between a field officer and a potential agent, and then she witnessed another officer, “Robert” trying to rape a local German agent.  Helen seeks help from her fifty-five years old lover, Clark Baucom, who is an experienced CIA field officer.  He advises her to destroy the tapes and to forget about reporting “Robert” for attempting to rape the young German agent.

Helen is having none of it.  Incensed by the cavalier attitude of male officers towards females, Helen goes to Paris to gather evidence against the rapist in their midst and, with the help of two other girls, she collects the evidence she needs. But “Robert” is more useful to the CIA and other powerful security lobbies than is Helen, so senior management side with him. The net result of Helen’s efforts was that she was fired from the CIA and sent home.

Henry and Anna make good headway unraveling the significance of what Helen had discovered in 1979 though they are still hampered by “Robert” AKA Kevin Gilley, who now occupies a powerful position in American Politics.  As in all spy books, one’s friends are not necessarily whom they appear to be. This includes Henry Mattick. The developing relationship between Anna and Henry comes rapidly unstuck when he confides that he has another paymaster beside herself.

Fesperman has done his research thoroughly for the background to Safe Houses. The locations are meticulously described, as are the difficulties and attitudes experienced by female operatives at the hands of their bosses – one aspiring young lady only gets to become a field agent after disingenuously confiding to her boss that she has been “fixed” like a cat or a dog, so there is no danger of her becoming pregnant on the job!  Despite its length – 613 pages - I found it a very enjoyable read with plenty to worry and hope about and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good spy story with a hint of romance thrown in.
Reviewer Angela Crowther

Dan Fesperman

Angela Crowther is a retired scientist.  She has published many scientific papers but, as yet, no crime fiction.  In her spare time Angela belongs to a Handbell Ringing group, goes country dancing and enjoys listening to music, particularly the operas of Verdi and Wagner.

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