Book Blurb from Goodreads:
In this gripping new work of suspense from the author of The Double Game, a young woman discovers a nefarious truth at the heart of the CIA's operations in postwar Berlin and goes on the run for her life; years later she's gruesomely murdered along with her husband, and her daughter begins to chase down these startling secrets from her past.
West Berlin, 1979. Helen Abell oversees the CIA's network of safe houses, rare havens for field agents and case officers amidst the dangerous milieu of a city in the grips of the Cold War. Helen's world is upended when, during her routine inspection of an agency property, she overhears a meeting between two people unfamiliar to her speaking a coded language that hints at shadowy realities far beyond her comprehension. Before the day is out, she witnesses a second unauthorized encounter, one that will place her in the sightlines of the most ruthless and powerful man at the agency. Her attempts to expose the dark truths about what she has witnessed will bring about repercussions that reach across decades and continents into the present day, when, in a farm town in Maryland, a young man is arrested for the double murder of his parents, and his sister takes it upon herself to find out why he did it.
*Safe Houses* has been my favorite read of 2018, so far. Dan Fesperman penned a story that kept me glued to the pages! I really couldn't put this one down.
As the blurb says, the story is about Helen in 1979. She stumbles upon a couple of secrets that change the course of her life forever. In 2014, Anna comes back to her childhood home when tragedy strikes her family. She starts to unravel clues to her mother's past, but can she figure it out before it is too late.
Fesperman creates characters that I couldn't help but love. Each of them were flawed but trying to the best they can in life. Even if I didn't agree with what they did, I could still understand why they did it. No one is perfect and I like my characters to imperfect also.
The story just flowed as it switched between 1979 and 2014. I did not have a hard time following the story. He wrote beautifully descriptive scenes whether it was Berlin or the old farm house. He was able to transport his readers back in time. Plus the ending was unexpected.
If you like spy novels or suspense, check this one out. You won't be disappointed!
Thank to the author and publisher for this copy of Safe Houses.
**A Conversation with Dan Fesperman on SAFE HOUSES**
Knopf; July 3rd, 2018
**SAFE HOUSES centers around a shadowy intelligence agency known as The Pond. Was The Pond real? If so, how did you first learn of its existence?**
Yes, it was real -- an oddball U.S. spy organization run by the eccentric Frenchy Grombach. It managed to hang around until 1955, and if it hadn’t lost out to the CIA in a postwar power struggle it might still be around. What’s amazing is that so few people have ever heard of it, and I suppose that’s mostly due to Grombach, who was so secretive that he communicated in deeply coded language, to the point that he had at least five different code names for himself. I only found out about the Pond a few years ago, when I came across an old news account from 2001 of the discovery of the Pond’s secret stash of archives in a barn in Virginia. They were moldering in a bunch of old safes and strongboxes, and when I saw they’d all been declassified in 2010 I knew I had to go down to the National Archives for a look. Great stuff, full of all sorts of offbeat intrigue, but with enough gaps in the historical record to get your imagination going. In other words, perfect material for a spy novelist.
**SAFE HOUSES alternates between present and past in a plot that is half-espionage thriller, half-mystery delving into long-buried family secrets. Can you tell us a bit about how these two threads intersect in the story. **
They intersect mostly through the family history of Helen Abell, who in one thread is a young woman working for the CIA in 1979 in Cold War Berlin, and her daughter, Anna, who, thirty five years later, is completely oblivious to her mother’s past. All Anna knows is that her mother and father, a friendly but seemingly bland farm couple, have just been brutally murdered by Anna’s younger brother, Willard, an otherwise docile fellow in his twenties who, intellectually, is more on the level of a first grader. Anna is too poor to afford a detective, so she hires a smart but rather dubiously qualified young man to help her out, and almost from the moment they begin poking around she realizes that her mother had this hidden past, a brief spy career that even her father hadn’t been aware of. The question for her is whether that past had anything to do with her mother’s death? And, if so, why?
**Of the many elements that make SAFE HOUSES such a fresh, compelling read, one that particularly stands out is its core group of strong, independent women working in a male-dominated field – the CIA – in the 1970’s. Why was it important to you to write this story in a way that highlights the experiences of women in the CIA? **
I pretty much had to write it that way once I settled on Helen Abell as a main character, because the late ‘70s were not an easy time for women in the CIA. They only rarely made it into operational jobs, and all of them were subject to the casual and deeply engrained sexism that had prevailed since the Agency’s origins coming out of the Second World War. The CIA was like just about every other powerful Washington institution in those days, an overgrown boy’s club with its own set ways of doing things, an atmosphere that was very comfortable for men and not so comfortable for women. The most enjoyable part of recreating that was the research. I corresponded with women who’d been in the Agency in various eras, and I pored over a lot of declassified CIA materials on the subject. Some of it, like a few Agency studies of bias, was dry but deeply revealing.
The best item was the transcript of a CIA forum from about twelve years ago, in which four women discussed their careers at length, and in very colorful detail. The most astonishing item was one woman’s account of how she was able to finally convince her station chief to give her an operational job. He’d complained again and again about how he never wanted to put a woman in the field because they would inevitably have babies and need time off, so she looked him in the eye and told him she’d been ‘fixed’ to keep that from ever happening. It was a lie, of course, but he didn’t have the nerve to call her bluff, so basically he had no further reason not to give her the job. I also came across some old news accounts of a CIA male who’d been convicted of raping several of his female agents in an Agency safe house, and this struck me as the ultimate violation of trust in a business that requires trust at its highest level. The odd thing for me was when I began reading over my edited manuscript just as the “Me Too” movement was exploding into awareness in the wake of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein. Helen Abell would been right out there with her CIA sisters, telling their stories. It was kind of eerie.
**Speaking of the time period in which this book is set – you chose to set your story’s “flashback” chapters in a rather unusual setting: Berlin in the late 1970’s, as the CIA begin to turn its attention to matters other than the Cold War. What made you interested in this particular period? And, along that same line, what made you decide to give your main character a profession other than a field-trained agent? **
On both counts, I wanted Helen to feel like she had somehow arrived too late to the party, to accentuate the idea that she had come to Berlin with expectations of a glamorous spy career, only to be shunted into an almost clerical and domestic position, administering safe houses. In October of 1979 the Agency was far more concerned about the doings in Iran, where the Shah had just been ousted and the Ayatollah Khomeini had come to power. Also, with the Berlin Wall still firmly in place, Helen didn’t even have access to the so-called enemy on the other side. Or, as the book says, she felt like she’d arrived in this wonderful old amusement park only to discover that the most interesting rides had all been roped off.
**Fans of espionage thrillers and newcomers to the genre alike will find SAFE HOUSES filled with so many fascinating, engaging details about spycraft: everything from cryptonyms to disguises to rooftop escapes. What kind of research went into writing about spycraft with such authenticity?**
I’ve done lots of interviews over the years with ex-CIA and ex-OSS people – dozens of them – and they always have interesting stories to tell. I’ve also read a lot of their memoirs, and have gone over plenty of declassified archival material that gives you a feel for their jargon, their ways of doing things, even their bureaucratic headaches and hang-ups. And it helps that a few ex-spies have published books offering loads of practical advice on getting by in the world of espionage. Two of the more helpful are William R. Johnson’s “Thwarting Enemies at Home and Abroad: How To Be a Counterintelligence Officer,” and, even better, “A Short Course in the Secret War,” by Christopher Felix. What makes the latter one so interesting for me is that Christopher Felix was a pen name for James McCargar, who not only had a long career with the CIA, but, before that, a brief career with none other than the Pond. So, yeah, that book was especially helpful, so much so that I ended up giving one of my own characters, Clark Baucom, a bio quite similar to McCargar’s.
**Prior to turning to crime writing, you had a career in journalism. Are there any elements of your former life as a journalist that you feel prepared you well for writing fiction? Or, conversely, are there journalistic instincts you have to let go of now that you’re writing fiction?**
Journalism is all about poking around in areas where people don’t want you to go, a little bit like a spy does. It’s also about trying to see the world from a lot of different perspectives, for people of all genders, all cultures, and all walks of life. You’re constantly trying to walk in the shoes of whoever you’re reporting on, to see things from their perspective. This is great practice for building characters in novels, when you’re trying to think and speak as they might, with a distinctive voice and a fresh way of seeing their world. Journalism, if you’re doing it right, also teaches you to be a good listener for dialog, and for the way people in different fields and professions talk with their own special jargon, their own coded language. And it teaches you to be a good researcher. As for drawbacks, the greatest one in the beginning was getting used to the idea of being in command of your own fictional world. If you need to change a detail about a character’s background, well then by God do it! You’re no longer limited to the facts scribbled in your notebook. You’re now in charge of your own reality, so loosen up and enjoy it.