Review: "The Double Game" by Dan Fesperman
This book, by a veteran novelist and author of seven books, is not for everyone. It’s full of shades of grey but not the kind that are on the best-seller list right now. It requires more patience than any typical reader of the novels of the promiscuously prolific James Patterson, and it absolutely helps if you love John LeCarre, worry about the CIA, and like a little history—diplomatic, political, and literary—with your fictional servings. Mostly, if you love spy novels, you’ll love “The Double Game”, and I say this with a major proviso: this is not a great spy novel, but it’s a great novel about spy novels.
The book is the kind of celebration and homage that only a writer and reader besotten with spy novels and their authors could write. Fesperman already has good street cred as an author of spy novels and/or thrillers with “Lie in the Dark” (Winner of the Crime Writer’s Association of Britain’s John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award), “The Small Boat of Great Sorrows”, winner of the Ian Fleming Dagger Award for best thriller, and “The Prisoner of Guantanamo”, winner of the Dashiell Hammett Award from the International Association of Crime Writers.
What he’s done in “The Double Game” echoes a lot of latter-day spy fiction and the rumors of the work of real spies—in particular the CIA’s greatly paranoid spymaster and counter-intelligence chief James Angleton, who went, Ahab-like, searching for a mole in the CIA.
In “The Double Game”, Fesperman has as his hero, or anti-hero, a former journalist and public relations man named Bill Cage, experiencing a later-mid-life crisis after a promising career with the Washington Post was squashed years ago. He’s divorced, has a grown son, and pondering the turn his life took after he had written a story about Edwin Lemaster, a top CIA spy and spy novelist, in which he printed a wistful remark by the writer that he once considered going over to the other side during the cold war. Nothing good came of the revelation, but now a mysterious and cryptic message sends Cage, whose father is an experienced retired diplomat living in Vienna, after the truth about Lemaster, who may have been a double agent, or something even more complicated and sinister.
Cage, following a Hansel and Gretel trail of messages in pages torn from (original) editions of famous spy novels, goes to Vienna, Prague and Budapest, where he’s accompanied by a girlfriend from 30 years ago. He’s shadowed by sometimes dangerous spies, encounters book sellers with double lives, and leaves a train wreck of tragedy behind him, all the while led on by his mysterious handler, whose identity isn’t revealed until the very end of the book.
As some of the people Cage encounters along the way meet unfortunate ends, he begins to question the trustworthiness of his father and the crafty and competent old flame Litzi Strauss. Cage’s world is turned upside down, and danger lurks at every turn. Things, as they say, get complicated, and sometimes so murky, that you lose the thread of who’s who and who was who, while trying to keep up with the genre references at every turn. For Cage, this is a journey into his own past—he spent his youth living with his father at dad’s postings in Prague, Budapest, Vienna and Berlin, and unknowingly played a part in the delivery of clandestine messages.
Festerman displays an obvious affection and love not only for spy novels, but also the tradecraft and lore of spies in the cold war eras, and something else: old books. Cage spends a lot of time in old and rare bookshops talking with old and rare birds and collectors, some of whom have spent a lifetime doubling as and dabbling with spies. If it’s flavor and atmosphere you want, you can’t get much better than Cage’s forays into the capitols of the old Austro-Hungarian empire—you can practically hear the zither music from “The Third Man” begin to swell and expect to meet a grandson of Harry Lime, the great, cynical, mysterious character played by Orson Welles in Carol Reed’s wonderful film about Brits, Americans, Russians and black marketers clashing in the ruins of Vienna.
If you want clarity of plot and heroic figures, “The Double Game” (it’s the fictional title of one of LeMaster’s novels), is a little short of these. One of the problems is that Cage is a decidedly un-heroic figure who is lucky just to survive his adventures. On top of that, he’s a bit of a whiner. On the other hand, the steady statesman that is Cage’s father (with a surprise secret to hide) and the swashbuckling Litzi, not to mention all the old spies and book collectors that populate then novel, are immensely satisfying creations.
Festerman has also provided a handy and downright pungent appendix of all the authors and novels he’s referenced in the book, by date and by author. He includes, of course, the fictional Edgar Lemaster and his works, but also the novels of the late J. Burke Wilkinson, a long-time Georgetown resident and state department official (“Night of the Short Knives” and “The Adventures of Geoffrey Mildmay”). That’s going the extra mile, which is something you should do for “The Double Game”, too.
My favorite spy writers in no particular order. John LeCarre— “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People” are in many fans’ estimation the finest spy-counter spy novels ever written, complex, ornate, with George Smiley at the center, trying to find the mole in the British spy establishment. “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”, a shorter, earlier effort gets to the cold, unromantic heart of the cold war and its spies. He adapted well to modern times and settings like “The Constant Gardener”.
Aaron Latham—“Orchids for Mother”, a sharp, crisp thriller with an Angelton-type character at its center.
Eric Ambler—The first hugely popular writer of spy fiction, whose theater of operations included pre-war, wartime and post-war Europe in such books as “The Levanter” (his last), “Epitaph for a Spy” and “The Mask of Demetrios”.
William Buckley—For his charming Blackford Oakes series, a hero with panache, American style, with a conservative edge.
Len Deighton—For his spy series, “Berlin Game”, “Mexico Set” and “London Match”, and “The Ipcress File” cold as a silencer against your neck.
Ian Fleming—Without Fleming, there would be no Bond, and without Bond, well, we shudder to think.
Alan Furst—Still going strong, this writer created a series of books set just before the start of World War II and after, books so saturated with the atmosphere of places like Paris, Warsaw, Istanbul, that you wanted to light up a non post-coital cigarette. “The Spies of Warsaw”, “Night Soldiers” and many others.
Graham Greene—He put the literary in novels that had intrigue and the works of very human spies at their center like the haunting “The Quiet American”, “The Human Factor” and “The Confidential Agent.”
James Grady—For “Three Days of the Condor”, paranoia and conspiracy perfectly presented.
Robert Littell—For the grandiose and epic “The Company” and “The Defection of A.J. Lewinter”
Charles McCarry—“The Tears of Autumn”, a plausible plot centering around the Kennedy Assassination as well as “The Secret Lovers” and “The Last Supper”, the latter a novel on the theme of expediency.
In Washington, where the world’s largest intelligence agencies reside, there’s no shortage of fans and readers.