Friday, September 7, 2012

Book Review of Dan Fesperman's The Double Game

The Double Game by Dan Fesperman

We have a guest post today from Stephanie DePue. Stephanie was a freelance journalist in her careless youth, with home port at The Village Voice. She also wrote many pieces for Newsday, as well as reviews, articles and celebrity interviews for Downbeat, Cavalier and Travel magazines. She's a fan of travel, sailing, the gym, felines and other animals, and movies of all genres. Her reading preferences are mysteries (of course) and biography.

The Double Game is a new crime novel, a spy thriller from presumably American, Baltimore-based Dan Fesperman. The award-winning author's travels have taken him to 30 countries and three war zones. This book is set in Washington, D.C. (principally the Georgetown neighborhood), Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and a bit of Plum Island, off the North Fork of New York's Long Island.

This entertaining book can best be described as a spy caper within a spy caper, set more than 20 years after the supposed end of the Cold War. Bill Cage, the protagonist, who narrates first person, is a diplomat's son who grew up all over the place, but mostly in Eastern Europe; specifically, Vienna, Prague, Budapest and Berlin. The book opens in 1984, a few years before the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, with Cage a journalist hoping to be a novelist. He is interviewing American spy-turned-novelist Edwin Lemaster. The virtues of Lemaster's work, Cage says, cause the young journalist to consider famed British spy novelist John le Carré to be more the British Lemaster, than for longtime CIA stalwart Lemaster to be the American le Carré. (Hah! As if, says I.)

At any rate, Lemaster, primed with too much alcohol, hints to the young journalist that he'd thought of working for the enemy. Upon publication, this disclosure causes brief scandals in some––CIA––circles, and hastens Bill's departure from the world of journalism.

Two decades later, Bill attends the funeral of another old CIA warrior with his retired diplomat father, Warfield. Bill's now a divorced single father, whose son, David, lives with Bill's ex-wife, April. Bill's a lonely, disillusioned, bitter public relations man.

Bill apparently catches someone's eye at the funeral, because he soon receives an anonymous note claiming that he was halfway there in 1984, and should investigate Lemaster more thoroughly. Bill is tempted by literary clues from his favorite childhood spy novels, and the chance to play at the spycraft they used, and he is soon off to Vienna, Prague and Budapest, the cities where he largely grew up, where his father and Lemaster largely worked, and where Lemaster set his novels. Bill's father has retired to Vienna, so Bill gets a chance to visit him there, where he again meets the beautiful Litzi Strauss, one of his first teenaged loves. And a lot of other flavorful characters. And ponders the secrets of his father––and Litzi.

For lovers of spy games, the book's a sweet treat. Fesperman gives us a good overview of the genre. He goes all the way back to the first entries in the 19th century, by Joseph Conrad (The Secret Agent), with whom I fell in love in high school. Then, The Riddle of the Sands (1903), a seagoing spy story, by Erskine Childers, which talented spy novelist Ken Follett (Eye of the Needle) called the first modern spy novel. My father, a former Sea Scout, fell in love with this one and made his children read it. I must say, though, that this one is particularly poignant, as Childers, an Irish nationalist who smuggled guns to Ireland in his sailing yacht, Asgard, was executed for spying by the authorities of the new Irish Free State during the Irish Civil War in 1922.

Then, some of the more modern guys. Eric Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy; John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps; Graham Greene, The Confidential Agent, Our Man in Havana, The Human Factor; John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War; and Len Deighton, The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin. I love them all, and enjoyed Fesperman's reference to their plots and places. For example:
Eric Ambler, I thought. I had become like a prototypical leading man in an 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. If it wasn't so foolhardy it might be funny. Give me enough time and maybe I'd be like Jim Wormold, the vacuum cleaner salesman in Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, who faked intelligence reports to earn extra cash only to have all his dark postings start coming true, leaving him caught in the middle. High comedy, except at the moment I didn't feel like laughing.
Fesperman's Lie in the Dark won the Crime Writers' Association of Britain's John Creasey Memorial Award (now known as the New Blood Dagger) for best first crime novel. The Small Boat of Great Sorrows won their Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for best thriller, and The Prisoner of Guantánamo won the Dashiell Hammett Award (the Hammett Prize) from the International Association of Crime Writers.

Fesperman is a nice smooth writer; he's given us good dialog, excellent narrative writing and an ingenious, audacious, enjoyable plot with a MacGuffin––as famed Anglo-American director Alfred Hitchcock used to call that which all the fuss is about in a mystery––that doesn't require too wrenching a suspension of disbelief. His descriptive writing of the places he's set his novel is evocative. I loved the presentation of the advance reading copy; all done up in brown paper and string, as were the books Bill and his father picked up when they dipped their toes into the spy trade. And very exciting to me, as I've long been fascinated by Vienna, Prague and Budapest and am, in fact, planning to visit them soon. I can see that I will have to take this book along as a travel guide. But the author really can't be compared to the greats of the genre, Ambler, Greene and le Carré. He lacks their moral seriousness, their deep feelings for their characters and their country. Fesperman, at least in this, is a no-calorie writer. But fun.

The Double Game was published by Alfred A. Knopf on August 21, 2012.

Note: I received a free copy of The Double Game for review. A version of this review appears on the Amazon product page under my name.


  1. Stephanie, thank you very much for this review. I've been eying Fesperman's 2012 book, and now I'll have to read it.

  2. I really enjoyed reading spy novels back in my high school days. This review may get me started on another binge non this genre.