Thriller dou­bles as fam­ily drama

Windsor Star - - BOOKS - Safe Houses Dan Fes­per­man Knopf OLINE H. COGDILL

In Safe Houses, author Dan Fes­per­man su­perbly melds a char­ac­ter-strong es­pi­onage thriller with a sus­pense­ful mys­tery that also aligns with #Me­Too. As a spy thriller, Safe Houses avoids high-tech gad­gets to con­cen­trate on the emo­tional and phys­i­cal peril of un­der­cover work. As a mys­tery, it quickly be­comes a fam­ily drama.

It moves seam­lessly between West Ber­lin in 1979 and a small town in Mary­land’s East­ern Shore dur­ing 2014 as it ex­plores the life and death of He­len Abell Shoat. In 1979, He­len Abell is a bright but in­ex­pe­ri­enced 23-year-old work­ing for the CIA. Like many other women at the CIA dur­ing this pe­riod, He­len is rel­e­gated to a low-level po­si­tion where she deals with sex­ism and dis­re­spect. She’s taken a me­nial as­sign­ment — main­tain­ing the up­keep of the four “safe houses” scat­tered around Ber­lin — and made it a vi­tal job. At one of the houses, He­len makes a life­long en­emy of a higher-rank­ing of­fi­cer, Kevin Gil­ley, when she in­ter­rupts him as­sault­ing a young Ger­man woman, whose body is found a week later. He­len launches a clan­des­tine in­ves­ti­ga­tion and soon learns that Kevin has a his­tory of abus­ing young fe­male agents, se­cure in the knowl­edge that male man­age­ment will pro­tect him.

In 2014, He­len Shoat has been liv­ing a quiet life on a farm with her hus­band, Tarrant, when the cou­ple is shot to death as they sleep. The likely sus­pect is their men­tally chal­lenged son, Wil­lard. But the cou­ple’s daugh­ter, Anna, who knows noth­ing about her mother’s past, doesn’t be­lieve her brother could com­mit such a mur­der. As the de­tails of the two eras are re­vealed, Safe Houses soon has mul­ti­ple mean­ings. The safe houses where agents feel free to meet in pri­vate are any­thing but safe — with hid­den tape recorders go­ing — and they def­i­nitely aren’t safe for fe­male agents. He­len’s home was her refuge, but it was also where she was mur­dered. Fes­per­man sup­plies plenty of tense scenes, es­pe­cially dur­ing He­len’s younger years, but his affin­ity for char­ac­ter stud­ies is the novel’s driv­ing force. Kevin’s vi­o­lence to­ward women is cou­pled with the dan­ger­ous power he wields as he moves up in the CIA. While Kevin is a vil­lain, Fes­per­man never al­lows his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion to go over the top. The younger He­len is a fully formed char­ac­ter, in­tel­li­gent, strong and just learn­ing her lim­i­ta­tions. The older He­len is more of a shadow un­til Anna be­gins to flesh out her mother’s life.

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