Fiction Thriller, Spies, Cold War
A few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, spook-turned-novelist Edwin Lemaster reveals to young journalist Bill Cage that he’d once considered spying for the enemy. For Cage, a fan who grew up as a Foreign Service brat in the very cities where Remaster set his plots, the story creates a brief but embarrassing sensation.
More than two decades later, Cage, by then a lonely, disillusioned PR man, receives an anonymous note hinting that he should have dug deeper. Spiked with cryptic references to some of his and his father’s favourite old spy novels, the note is the first of many literary breadcrumbs that soon lead him back to Vienna, Prague and Budapest in search of the truth, even as the events of Remaster’s past eerily – and dangerously – begin intersecting with those of his own.
Why is beautiful Litzi Strauss back in his life after 30 years? How much of his father’s job involved the CIA? Did Bill, as a child, become a pawn? As the suspense steadily increases, a long stalemate of secrecy may finally be broken…
The (three now) books I’ve read by Dan Fesperman (The Arms Maker of Berlin, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows) have been excellent and this is no different. If you want to read how this sort of thing is done, read this. Or one of the others.
I’m thinking there’s a general feeling around right now, that spies and spying is/are back. In literary circles as well as real life. With the US President hopefuls and hangers on determined to glorify in their own stupidity (that’s not really relevant, I just put it in because they’re all dip-shits – you know it), and with dumb fuck Putin determined to show us the size of his wanger and recreate the tensions of the Cold War, there’s never been a better time to be a spy in reality, or a better one to be a reader, or re-reader, of spy novels. I think it’s a reaction to the high tech life we have now. Where you have in your pocket, a computer powerful enough that George Smiley would have believed needed a whole floor of The Circus to house. A reaction, as in you look (longingly) back to a time when it was a lot more simple, this spying game. They were over there, we were over here. The technology of spying was a piece of chalk and a drawing pin or two and you had to use your brain (remember them?) to figure out and analyse what the other lot were up to. This book is in many ways, a homage to all that. Especially as the main man’s father is a collector of all the classic spy authors and has passed on his love of the genre and book collecting in general, to his son.
I think most spy novel lovers – certainly the authors do – miss the Cold War. So, I suppose one point of interest, for the aficionado anyway, will be trying to work out how much of it is true. And/or, who the ‘fictional’ characters are based on. The question that occurred to me under way, was how much of a book written by an ex-CIA/MI6 operative IS fiction? Stella Rimmington’s books sprang to mind. I haven’t read any as yet, though I imagine her books need to go through some sort of ‘fact cleaning’ process before publication, but even so, when the maxim is always to write about what you know, there HAS to be a fair amount of stuff that someone somewhere will recognise. But I digress.
It becomes a trip down memory lane for the characters and the reader. Down the dimly-lit back alleys and streets of Cold War eastern Europe. Back in time to chalk marks, dead letter drops and losing your followers by doubling back, rather than just taking the battery out of your mobile phone. For lovers of good, old-fashioned spy novels (as clearly was the intention), the pre-fall of the Berlin Wall versions that is, like me, it is a hypnotic trip in a time machine to Cold War hog-heaven. In parts bitter sweet, others enveloping, always somehow reassuring – I read it so quickly I didn’t have time to take notes. I had to write down my impressions when I was done. This is they.
The main character’s naivety is believable, he was a child at the original time and is only now awakening to see what his past really was. He, as we discover more about his father with each chapter, and all the time knowing he must be holding something back. The way this is done, reminded me of Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree (and interestingly, both fathers are called ‘Cage.’ His lost love, Litzi is also very believable. “Long love’s gone, I can tell by the way that you carry on…” Perhaps the weakest link (the only weak link, on reflection) is the man behind it all’s motivation for doing it like this. His given reason is logical enough, however, compared to the complexity of much of the rest, it is weak. And although he professes it to have been easy (to set up) “just a few phone calls” it’s both hard to see how it could have been and how he – even with help – could have done it. Physically. You’ll see.
As The Gin Blossoms once said “the past is gone but something might be found to take its place.”
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