The Cold War spy novel, left for dead in 1989 beneath the ruins of the Berlin Wall, is looking pretty healthy these days. After three decades of mouldering in the grave it has clawed its way back to relevance, partly by emerging in the guise of another sub-genre, the historical spy novel.
Works for me. Or it had better, I suppose, since my latest book, Safe Houses, is a Cold War spy novel wrapped inside a contemporary murder mystery. Whatever you prefer to call it, I am happy for its resurrection, both as a reader and a writer.
Nostalgia is certainly part of the appeal. In so many of today’s spy tales – whether in fiction or in the news – the stakes involve an imminent danger to the general public. In most Cold War novels, the casualties were usually the players within the game – the spymasters themselves, and their many vulnerable agents. Danger, but at arm’s length.
I also miss the days when spies had to rely more on brain power and nimble footwork than on cell phones, tracking chips, drones, CCTV, data mining or satellite imagery. And while many readers are fascinated by these advances (I know I am, and I’ve often used them in previous books), it can be a relief to make them all disappear.
So, we switch off the shining screen on that beeping little micro-computer in our pockets, and curl up instead with the vicarious thrills of some shadowy figure from the recent past as he makes a chalk mark on a wall. Neo-primitivism in all its comforting glory.
Even John le Carre couldn’t resist getting in on this vibe, with his retrospective tour through George Smiley’s greatest hits in his most recent novel, A Legacy of Spies. It was a wonderful gift to all of us who have dearly missed Smiley and his people. But the twist that made it work was the way Le Carre turned all those old operations on their heads, by looking at them from the inside-out, and finally holding the spymasters accountable for the human costs they’d once written off as the price of doing business.
And that illustrates the challenge for the rest of us who wish to revisit the Cold War in our writing. It’s not enough to fight the same battles as before – the old, gray rivalry of Us vs. Them, East vs. West. We must find something new to say, or at least offer a fresh point of view.
I tried to do so in Safe Houses by examining fault lines and tensions within the Agency itself. Never mind the Soviets for a moment. Instead, ask yourself what might happen if one of your own people began playing by his own rules, and for his own benefit, and while taking his own special brand of casualties. And what if the only players taking action to stop him were three women, fighting a hierarchy that had only reluctantly let them in through the door? Or, in another of the book’s subtexts, what would happen if a spinoff spy organization, long presumed gone, turned out to still be hiding within the deeper folds of this shadowy business?
The irony is that the intelligence community’s contemporary misdeeds have probably helped create this urge to re-examine past practices. When an outfit begins freely admitting to off-the-books imprisonments, “enhanced” interrogations and extrajudicial assassinations by drone, it’s pretty much inevitable that reporters and, yes, novelists will soon begin poking into the past for evidence that this mentality is really nothing new.
So, welcome back, Cold War novel. After twenty-nine years, it looks like we’ve got some catching up to do.
Safe House by Dan Fesperman (Published by Knopf on 3rd July 2018)
West Berlin, 1979. Helen Abell oversees the CIA’s network of safe houses, rare havens for field agents and case officers amidst the dangerous milieu of a city in the grips of the Cold War. Helen’s world is upended when, during her routine inspection of an agency property, she overhears a meeting between two people unfamiliar to her speaking a coded language that hints at shadowy realities far beyond her comprehension. Before the day is out, she witnesses a second unauthorised encounter, one that will place her in the sight lines of the most ruthless and powerful man at the agency. Her attempts to expose the dark truths about what she has witnessed will bring about repercussions that reach across decades and continents into the present day, when, in a farm town in Maryland, a young man is arrested for the double murder of his parents, and his sister takes it upon herself to find out why he did it.
Author and travel journalist Dan Fesperman is the winner of two Crime Writer’s Association Dagger Awards. Lie in the Dark won the Crime Writers’ Association of Britain’s John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for best first crime novel, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows won their Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for best thriller. The Prisoner of Guantánamo won the Dashiell Hammett Award from the International Association of Crime. More information about Dan Fesperman and his books cn be found on his website www.danfesperman.com