“Safe Houses” by Dan Fesperman, Knopf, 416 pages, $26.95
In Baltimore-based spy master Dan Fesperman’s latest, the past eerily overlaps with the present via two artfully linked stories.
In 1979, Helen Abell, a lowly 23-year-old CIA worker stationed in Berlin, witnesses a high-ranking agent sexually abuse a woman in a safe house and comes out of hiding to stop the attack. Though warned by her superiors to back off the case, Abell becomes determined to make the agent pay for what she learns is only the latest in a series of such assaults. She goes rogue from the Company and the compromised CIA operative with whom she was having an affair.
Twenty-five years later, while living in a farmhouse on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, she and her husband are shotgunned to death. The murder is pinned on their mentally challenged 24-year-old son, Willard, but his older sister Anna knows he never could have committed such an act. She hires an investigator to help her uncover the truth, not knowing anything about her secretive mother’s past.
Like the best espionage novels, “Safe Houses” brilliantly traces the distance between high moral ground and low. Part of the fun of the book is reading it for a second time and seeing how the narrative seeds of the first part enrich and deepen what occurs in part two.
“The Throwaway” by Michael Moreci, Forge, 318 pages, $25.99
Best known for his comic books and sci-fi fiction (“Black Star Renegades”), Chicagoan Michael Moreci makes a serious foray into espionage fiction with this brisk and timely thriller.
His odd man out is Mark Strain, a sometimes shady Washington lobbyist whose happy future with his pregnant wife, Sarah, is upended when federal agents invade their bedroom, accuse him of being a Russian spy and hand him over to Russian intelligence — supposedly as part of a prisoner exchange. This comes after a done-deal with a client of Strain’s to provide the Pentagon with its security software is unexpectedly scotched. What cutthroat sold him out? What state secrets are so at risk that he is expendable? He has plenty of questions that need answering after he escapes the clutches of the Russians and fights his way back to Washington.
“The Throwaway” boasts a wide assortment of cliches and stock characters. But Moreci is good at action scenes, a friendly female double agent livens things up, and you can bet the Russkies are going to go after Sarah after losing their man. Moreci’s unassuming style also pays dividends: This is that rare contemporary thriller that is happy to treat the reader to a clean, linear narrative.
“Rip the Angels From Heaven” by David Krugler, Pegasus, 336 pages, $25.95
The year is 1945. Rarely has a double agent been in more over his head than naval intelligence man Ellis Voigt. He is being targeted not only by the Russians he has infiltrated — they suspect he had something to do with the disappearance of the head of their Washington spy ring — but by the FBI, which thinks he’s a Commie who murdered a Navy officer.
At the heart of the plot is the passing of crucial intel about the atomic research going on in New Mexico. As in “The Throwaway,” the hero hooks up with an attractive female playing both sides of the street. Before luring the Russians into a disinformation scheme in Los Alamos (where Richard Feynman makes a guest appearance), he must endure a grueling torture session you may want to skip past. He also is tormented by his failure to save a young boy from getting shot.
“Rip the Angels From Heaven” has its own cliche problems, not to mention unfortunate lines such as, “My mind raced as I tried to keep my composure.” But author David Krugler is terrific at period details and atmosphere, and makes a complicated plot tick — and go off.
Lloyd Sachs, a freelancer, writes regularly about crime fiction for the Tribune. HARDCOVER NONFICTION
1. “The Russia Hoax: The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump” by Gregg Jarrett
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