‘Safe Houses’

‘Safe Houses’ by Dan Fesperman, Knopf, 2018, 404 pages, $26.95

There are two genres working simultaneously in “Safe Houses,” a new novel from Dan Fesperman. One is an edge-of-your-seat spy thriller. The other is a baffling murder mystery.

The spy thriller is set in Berlin of 1979, and its milieu is the safe houses provided by various governments where their agents can meet other operatives or hide out when necessary. Making sure that the four houses used by America’s CIA are ready at a moment’s notice is Helen Abell, a 24-year-old, entry-level official.

During a routine inspection, Helen overhears — and records — a coded conversation between an older man and a younger man. That conversation, Helen is convinced, contains an offer of some sort: “Was it part of some conspiracy? Toward what end? And for what masters?”

That very same day, Helen witnesses — and records—another encounter, this one between the high-powered — and highly terrifying — agent Kevin Gilley, notorious for his “predatory nature,” and a female informant. If word gets out, the encounter could easily bring down the agent and certainly embarrass the agency. It quickly becomes evident that the expendable one involved in this second encounter is Helen.

With the help of two female colleagues in different cities, Helen goes on the run, pulled between her two recent encounters, even as she is determined to expose what she has discovered about one of the agency’s top operatives.

The murder mystery is set in August 2014 along the east coast of the United States. Using a hunting rifle given him on his 14th birthday by his father, a young man gruesomely murders his parents in their bed. After the murders, Willard Shoat, now 24 years old, uses a can of red spray paint to correct the sign on the outskirts of Poston, Md.: The population total is now three fewer than it had been.

Anna Shoat, “the second-in-command of some do-gooder outfit that lobbied on behalf of children and the poor,” returns to Poston to bury her parents and understand her brother Willard’s actions. To help get the answers she needs, Anna finds herself enlisting the help of Henry Mattick, her parents’ new neighbor.

Henry is “between jobs and romantically unattached, quartered in a spartan rancher owned by a distant relative who’d offered temporary refuge at a bargain rate. Or so Henry told the neighbors on the few occasions they induced him to talk.” Henry’s been busier that it looks, though. He’s even assiduously retraced the steps Willard took the night of the murders.

Soon after, it is revealed that there’s a connection between Helen and Anna, and the two plotlines continue to intriguingly overlap as they unfold from Berlin to Paris to eastern America and back again.

As might be expected, a novel such as “Safe Houses” is very much plot heavy. That is the book’s strength as well as its weakness. Espionage novels rely heavily on plot, sometimes to the detriment of character. (Let’s face it: not every spy novel can be written by John le Carré.) Murder mysteries are very much plot-centered, as well.

If there’s a bit of disappointment about “Safe Houses” because we don’t know enough about the characters that populate it, perhaps we can simply shrug and say that most of them are, after all, operatives, out of necessity, without identities anyway. Then we can settle into a long weekend reading Dan Fesperman’s intricate new thriller and let it do what it does best.

Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.