Ariel S. Winter’s “The Twenty-Year Death” opens as rain sweeps the French countryside and the body of a convict from a nearby prison is discovered blocking a storm drain. At the start of Dan Fesperman’s “The Double Game,”the narrator is stunned to get a call at home from a former CIA officer and celebrated spy novelist, granting a rare interview: “I could barely draw a breath to answer.”
But readers will find more than a gripping narrative with these new books, whose authors gave talks this month at The Ivy Bookshop.
The Ivy Bookshop,
6080 Falls Road, Baltimore, MD. 21209
Thursday, Sept. 6 at 6:30 p.m – Ariel S. Winter, “The Twenty Year Death”
Friday, Sept. 7, at 7 p.m. – Dan Fesperman, “The Double Game”
Winter, a first-time author who celebrates the pulp fiction traditions of the mystery, and Fesperman, a master of literary thrillers and a onetime Baltimore Sun reporter, are both attempting some innovative renovation work in genres badly in need of it.
In Winter’s “The Twenty-Year Death,” (Hard Case Crime, 2012, 672 pp.) the investigation of the convict’s death is taken on by a middle-class detective with a carefully calibrated manner.
The case leads back to the big state prison at the edge of town and to an American writer and his young French wife living in the sleepy village. Before long, the authorities come to realize that a serial killer is at work, and that the American’s frail and beautiful wife may be his next target. The rest of the 672-page book barely pauses to let the reader catch his or her breath.
In his first book, Winter has managed to use shifting tone and perspective to update the mystery novel using some of the tricks of post-modernist fiction – without ever seeming engaged in a dry literary exercise. The book features two characters who appear in three separate books within the book: the first set in France in 1931, the second in a city very much like Los Angeles in 1941 and the last in one that approximates Baltimore in 1951.
Each of the three books-within-a-book are written in the style of a different author of detective novels, Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson. Each has characters from the other books, sometimes at the periphery of the story and sometimes at its center. And each focuses on a serial killer, one of them in a glaring light at center stage, the others working in the shadows. Likewise the detectives, victims and bystanders move from foreground to background. The overall effect is to make readers feel like they are being drawn closer and closer into the darkness at the center of the author’s imagination.
Winter’s handling of the Simenon-style section is uncanny, like sitting through a séance with the French writer’s ghost. The Chandleresque section of the book, perhaps the best plotted, captures much of the seedy glitz that Chandler described in Hollywood in the 1930s and has very snappy dialogue. But this homage lacks some of Chandler’s deft dissection of characters with a few sharp cuts. In Baltimore, the setting and peripheral characters fade away as we are drawn into the mind of a man whose efforts to find redemption seems to be leading him inexorably to disaster. Sometimes, it’s hard to look. But it’s just as hard to put down. This is a major achievement by an author of great promise.
The Un-redacted Truth in Spy Stories
Fesperman’s approach in deconstructing the spy novel also consists to a significant extent of an homage to earlier authors in the genre, though in “The Double Game” (Knopf, 2012, 361 pp.), the links are far more explicit.
During the Reagan era, journalist and spy fiction fanboy Bill Cage interviews a former spook and famous espionage novelist, an American John LeCarre, who in an unguarded moment admits that he was once tempted to become a mole for the other side and play what is called “the double game.” Cage secretly tapes the interview and in an act of minor betrayal of his idol, splashes the confession on the front page of the Washington Post.
Flash forward a quarter century. Cage is a well-paid middle-aged P.R. man with a mild case of mid-life crisis who he gets a cryptic note in his Georgetown home. It is only the first in a series of clues in a kind of treasure hunt that leads Cage, who grew up as the child of an American diplomat in Cold War Europe, back to familiar haunts in Vienna, Prague and Budapest. His mission: to solve one of the lingering mysteries of the bygone era of superpower rivalry.
One of the themes of “The Double Game” is that spy fiction, especially as written by former members of the intelligence services, can be a richer source of the truth about espionage than factual histories. And the clues to the mystery Cage sets out to solve – it has to do with a mole hunt that may implicate the author Cage interviewed–are contained in the passages of some classic spy novels of the period.
Many of the characters are deliberately meant to resemble those in other works, and I hope I’m not giving too much away by saying that even Cage himself has a fictional counterpart. At one point he reflects on how he had become “like a prototypical leading man in an (Eric) Ambler novel, one of those Everyman types who blunders into something bigger than himself, then keeps tripping over his own two feet while the professionals circle for the kill.”
It’s as if Opie from “The Andy Griffith Show” stepped into the cynical, unforgiving world of spymaster George Smiley of the LeCarre books. While he sometimes seems overmatched, his naïve directness often accomplishes more than the crafty evasions of his world-weary adversaries.
There is very little noir about our hero. He’s divorced, but it wasn’t his fault. He dislikes his day job, but doesn’t let it get to him. He’s a good dad, a regular Joe. Most of the other main characters have a laundry basket brimming with dirty secrets, brought to light by Cage’s dogged determination to follow the trail of clues drawn from spy novels from bookshop to bookshop across the former Eastern Bloc. Not only is he followed by former KGB and CIA operatives, he’s shadowed by doubts about those closest to him. Is Cage’s seductive old flame, Litzi, really just an archivist at Austria’s national library? Is his bibliophilic father, retired and living in Vienna, somehow implicated?
The cast of characters in “The Double Game’s” wilderness of mirrors is large and gets pretty crowded. Because Cage has to sort through a lot of fragmentary clues, it was sometimes a challenge to follow the plot. But the author strives to wrap it up neatly, so that even the inattentive reader can feel that he or she was following the threads all along.
Some readers may be reminded of the treasure hunt at the center of “The DaVinci Code,” which also takes a grand tour of European landmarks, albeit ones not so far off of the beaten tourist track. And a lot of contemporary literature plays with the boundary between truth and fiction. But it’s hard to think of another thriller where the hero is almost drawn into the fictional worlds created by other authors.
The Cold War was for the most part not fought on the battlefield. Its combatants didn’t wear uniforms. And the details of many of its campaigns are still secret. Little wonder then that, so far, there are no Cold War re-enactors. But for those fascinated by that Golden Age of espionage, “The Double Game” may be the next best thing.
Dan Fesperman at the Ivy, Part II:
– Many thanks to new Baltimore Brew sponsor “THE IVY BOOKSHOP” for their support. Content in this sponsored feature is produced by the Brew staff. Any books mentioned here can be purchased at this locally-owned store, a hub for literature, community and culture in Baltimore. Call to inquire or stop in and browse.
The Ivy Bookshop
6080 Falls Road, Baltimore, MD. 21209
Mon–Fri: 10am–7pm, Sat: 10am–6pm, Sun: 11am–5pm