SAFE HOUSES by Dan Fesperman

Deustchland Berliner Mauer Westberlin
(Berlin Wall, circa 1979)

It’s been a few years since I have read a Dan Fesperman novel which is an obvious oversight since I greatly enjoyed his previous works LIE IN THE DARK, THE PRISONER OF GUANTANAMO, and THE WARLORD’S SON.  All novels met expectations for creativity and Fesperman’s ability to create realistic scenarios that maintain historical relevance is one of his many strengths.  Therefore, his work was an obvious choice for my current read, SAFE HOUSES which did not disappoint.

In true Fesperman fashion, SAFE HOUSES is a complex novel that develops a multi-faceted plot involving a number of characters that are difficult to sort out.  The main character, Helen Abell pursues a life that is a dichotomy.  In the late 1970s she was employed by the CIA in West Berlin in charge of maintaining and operating four safe houses for agents and the German sources they handled.  After overhearing a classified conversation and witnessing a rape by an important CIA operative Abell finds herself in a compromised position.  She decides to report the assault on the German source, but her station chief, Ladd Herrington, a rather misogynistic pompous individual wants no part of any investigation and would like nothing better than to get rid of her. 

View of Chesapeake City from the Chesapeake City Bridge, Maryland
(Maryland’s eastern shore)

Fesperman deftly flips the script as he turns to 2014 and Maryland’s eastern shore in developing a second plot line as Helen Abell and her husband are murdered.  The police and public believe the murderer is their son Willard Shoat, a psychologically disturbed young man.  Willard’s sister, Anna, cannot believe he has the capacity to engage in such violence and in seeking answers hires Henry Mattick, a private investigator who in the past held positions in the White House, Congress, and the Justice Department.  Mattick is an interesting character as he also working for an operative named “Mitch” who wants him to keep on top of the events surrounding the murder and making sure that Willard is found guilty.  The problem that surrounds the murder is that while Abell was in the CIA from 1977 to 1979 where she made an enemy out of Kevin Gilley, a CIA agent who resented her in the past and always wanted to remove her as an obstacle to his career.

Fesperman carefully manipulates his dual plot as the reader wonders how events in 1979 are related to the 2014 murder.  As the link is established, suspense dominates as Gilley, the high priest of the CIA’s darkest arts operated by his own rules with a propensity to go rogue and had a history of attacking women with no consequences because of the male dominated structure of the CIA.  Fesperman is a master at throwing out a series of hints to guide the reader, but then will shift the focus of the novel to a new path which is totally surprising.

The novel is an ode to persistence and hunting down a rapist and possible murderer while you are being hunted yourself.   The story revolves around “the sisterhood” made up of Abell, Clair Saylor, a clerk at Paris station, and Audra Vollmer who will support Abell and assist her in challenging the misogynistic way in which the CIA operated risking their careers and their lives to bring about justice for the many women who have been violated.  The key for Anna and Mattick is to unravel the life and career of Helen Abell and determine what really occurred in West Berlin and why she and her husband are eliminated thirty-five years later.

(Writer Dan Fesperman pictured in his home).

A series of important characters dominate the story.  Apart from Abell is her lover and mentor in West Berlin, Clark Baucom, an aging CIA type who tries to control Helen and one wonders whose side he is really on.  Kevin Gilley, code named “Robert” lives by his own rules and is difficult to control.  Anna, in her early thirties had left the family years before, but she wanted to save her brother and learn her mother’s true history.  Henry Mattick, an operator in his own right, falls for Anna, but can he be trusted.  Larry Hilliard, an archivist at the National Archives who guides Abell in trying to understand “the Pond,” a clandestine intelligence organization spun off from the CIA. The members of the “sisterhood” within the CIA, a group made up of Claire  Saylor who supported Abell and helped her conduct her clandestine mission, Audra Vollmer who turns out to be deeply involved with “the Pond,” which was supposed to be disbanded in 1955 and was not, and of course Helen Abell.  Other characters appear with important roles and all point to Fesperman’s inventiveness and imagination in fitting the novel together as assassinations of politicians, intelligence assets and others have been arranged or carried out by Gilley in 1979, 1998, 2000, and possibly 2014.

Fesperman’s “Safe Houses” have a number of implications.  The houses are designed for agents to meet in private and carry out their missions, but the houses contain hidden listening devices and traps for female agents.  Helen Abell is the key to the story, and it is fascinating how she evolves from an employee who lacks confidence in herself to one who refuses to be cowed by the CIA leadership infrastructure. “Safe Houses” is an amazing thriller both on the international and domestic scene, particularly the #MeToo slant.  After reading SAFE HOUSES, Fesperman’s latest novel, WINTER WORK is now near the top of my pile of books on my night table!

(West Berlin, circa 1979)

The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney

Gorbals back court between Camden Street and Florence Street.
(Glasgow, Scotland in the 1960s)

What could be better than a Scottish noir with the authentic ring of its slang as a major component of the characters vernacular?  In the present case of Liam McIlvanney’s first attempt at the genre in THE QUAKER, very little as the complex and creative mystery moves along on a straight path, presents a number of forks in the road and settles into a marvelous whodunit.  The novel focuses on the search for a serial killer who has already claimed three women as his victims.  After a yearlong investigation, the Marine Flying Squad of the Glasgow Police Department have reached a dead end and are searching for closure.  The problem that arises is that a fourth victim turns up, but an individual who is charged with all four murders has nothing to do with the first three which authorities do not want to hear or accept.   What could be the motivations of the powers that be?  A commander who has reached a retirement age and wants to go out with a major success.  A police department that wants to put the crimes behind them and move on or for some other nefarious reason.

The scenario that McIlvanney has laid out becomes quite frustrating for the main character, Detective Duncan I. McCormack who is brought in from another department to bring the case of the first murders to some type of conclusion.  McCormack is instructed to investigate the Marine Flying Squad and determine what went wrong and why the police have failed in trying to solve the case.  McCormack is not accepted by his colleagues that he is overseeing, and he receives little cooperation which does not stop him from conducting his due diligence and concluding that the Marine detectives have conducted a thorough investigation but relied too heavily on a particular witness and that other avenues of inquiry were overlooked.  As he was tasked McCormack advised that the investigation be wound down, especially since there had not been another murder for over a year, and it was logical to assume that the perpetrator was no longer at large in the Glasgow area.

Bringing it all back home
(Author, Liam McIlvanney)

The original murders centered on three woman, Jacquilin Keevins, Ann Ogilvie and Marion Mercer who had gone out dancing and wound up raped and murdered.  McCormack was against investigating the investigators as he wanted to concentrate on putting away John McGlasham, the biggest crime boss in Glasgow.  In conducting his reinvestigation McCormack comes across important characters who his colleagues reject.  As the author lays out the noir he provides an intimate portrait of Glasgow in the late 1960s focusing on run down parts of the city and a program to renovate the city’s many decaying tenements.  In addition, by relying repeatedly on Scottish slang for dialogue the conversations between characters present a high degree of authenticity.

There are a number of important characters that are developed.  McCormack’s partner, Derek Goldie is a big mouth blowhard of a detective who seems cocksure about everything.  DCI Angus Flett, McCormack’s boss is the Commander of the Flying Squad who tries to keep McCormack aboard, and DCI George Cochrane in charge of the first failed investigation, among others.  McIlvanney has the unique ability to develop clues that appear far-fetched but in the end become important.  Esoteric discoveries like the role of Mary Queen of Scots and her four women in waiting seem to be important, leading McCormack to brush up on his history through renowned historian Antonia Fraser’s biography.  Evidence hidden in abandoned tenements abound, Scottish poetry, and a series of songs sung to McCormack by his grandmother when he was a child. Another interesting touch is how McIlvanney gives the murder victims their own voice as he has them recount their own murders from their perspective – very eerie!

As the noir focuses on the serial murders, McIlvanney introduces a second story line which at first centers around the planning and conducting of a robbery of the Glendinning Auction House.  The robbers are led by Stephen Dalziei who brings in an outside safecracker from London, Alex Paton.  The robbery is a success until Paton is arrested for the fourth murder as he was hiding in a tenement in which the body was found.  There are certain elements of the police force that are desperate for a conclusion and charge him as the serial killer even though the evidence is rather incomplete – the question is why.

(Glasgow Police Headquarters, 1969)

Once McCormack completes his report he wants to return to fight organized crime but refuses to let go.  Higher ups are angry because of his tenacity which becomes the deepest mystery of all.  Why do they want to convict an innocent man and who is the Quaker? 

McIlvanney has structured an at times frustrating scenario.  First, and foremost he lays out the crimes, the investigation, the re-investigation, and the fake scenario of an alternative murderer to cover for the real Quaker.  Second, was the Quaker arranging a set up for Alex Paton who was innocent of murder to be found guilty even after a fourth murder takes place.  For McCormack what was really happening and what could he do to solve the crime against the wishes of others.

My only suggestion for the author is to develop the personal lives of his main characters more.  There is a hint of the private lives of McCormack, Goldie, Cochrane, Flett, Levein, apart from the Quaker which could have enhanced the story line and drawn the reader closer to the characters.  Despite this slight drawback, the author knows how to capture the reader’s attention and create a nail bitter that has a powerful ending.  Further, the noir concept can at times be formulaic, but in the author’s hands he reminds us of what an enduring approach to murder mysteries it is.  McIlvanney’s first effort produced a number of awards and I look forward to reading his latest just released, THE HERETIC.

Nuclear Defence Plan - crowds gather round a shop window in Sauchiehall Street.
(Glasgow, Scotland in the 1960s)


Victory Day Parade in Moscow
(Victory Day – World War II celebration in Russia, May 2022)

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 produced tremendous corruption, poverty,  lawlessness, food and other consumer goods shortages, among many other negative occurrences.  These aspects that are normally discussed when dealing with decade of the 1990s, however, there is another major circumstance that needs to be stressed, the loss of identity.  Former Soviet citizens and soldiers immediately lost their affiliation to the only country they had known and asked themselves, “who are they?”  Since 1991 people were required to reformat their view of national ideology, the geopolitical balance, and for over 250 million people their psychological makeup.  The result people was that were ripe for manipulation to fill the void of their loss of identity with the passing of the Soviet Union.  Shaun Walker’s book THE LONG HANGOVER: PUTIN’S NEW RUSSIA AND THE GHOSTS OF THE PAST explores how Vladimir Putin attempted to fill that void and “forge a new sense of nation and purpose in Russia.”

As the Moscow correspondent to the Guardian holding a command of the Russian language, Walker has the sources and language skills to present a concise and searing argument that will allow the reader to acquire a true understanding of the underpinnings of Putin’s propaganda when applied to the February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine.  Though written in 2018, the narrative presents a clear argument that is difficult to find fault with.  The focal point of Walker’s book centers around Putin’s strategy of turning the Russian people toward World War II, the Great Patriotic War as a means of reuniting the Russian people and gaining support for his imperial ambitions.  In order to accomplish this Putin, Walker argues, must eradicate certain historically factual events from the pre-war and war periods that do not reflect very highly on Joseph Stalin and the former Soviet Union.  The need to create “willful amnesia” among Stalin and Putin’s victims was required.  In Walker’s account the concept has been applied extensively and effectively.

Vladimir Putin at Victory Day
(Putin attends Victory Day for the Great Patriotic War)

Walker clearly describes the tableau of the 1990s concluding with Boris Yeltsin’s resignation in December 1999 and the failure of the “decade of democracy.”  As people lost their savings and pensions, dealt with the Chechen war and terrorism it created a yearning for stability and normalcy.  Despite the fact that oil prices increased in 2004 resulting in a promising standard of living in the major cities, the vast majority of people living in towns and the countryside across Russia’s Eurasian land mass, poverty, drugs, addiction, and disease remained pervasive.  Putin believed that the poverty and divisions were a symptom of a broader malaise.  For Putin, the health of the state was most important and if Russia’s station in the world could be regained, people’s well-being would automatically improve.  Putin was tapping into the long held Russian political creed that fetishized the strength of the state and sovereignty.

In all of Russian history there has been only one event that could catalyze Russian unity and create the foundation to bring the country together – the victory in World War II.  Walker concludes that “pride in the defeat of Nazism transcended political allegiance, generation, or economic status, and had been used by later Soviet leaders to cement the regime’s legitimacy.  Putin would once again draw on the war victory as the key to creating a consolidated, patriotic country.”

Map of Kherson, Ukraine

From the outset Putin had to deal with the “truths” about the pre-war and war periods unleashed by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.  With archives opened people began questioning certain events; i.e., the Nazi-Soviet Pact and its side agreements to seize half of Poland and other areas; Stalin’s purges of the 1930s which included the officer class reducing the effectiveness of the Soviet military at the outset of the war which led to disaster throughout 1941; admission to the Katyn Forest Massacre of Polish officers; and the massive deportations that took place in the east.  Nationalities like the Kalmyks, Chechens, Crimean Tatars, ethnic Germans and other smaller groups were deported to central Asia and Siberia.  This involved thousands of soldiers when the war was not going well, but it was a priority for Stalin.  If Putin’s narrative of the Great Patriotic War was to be accepted, many of Stalin’s actions and the plight of the deported nationalities had to remain unexplored and forgotten.

The rhetoric Walker describes reflects an amazing campaign of misinformation and warnings about what was to be believed and what was to be whitewashed.  Even the meaning of “Victory Day” was altered as “under Putin gradually but inexorably the day became less about remembering the war dead and honoring the survivors, and more about projecting the military might of contemporary Russia.  The message was one of unity, around the idea of a resurgent victorious nation,” especially after the successful invasion of Georgia in 2008.

In describing how this was achieved Walker travels throughout the Gulag and interviews survivors of the prison system and family members who know what happened to relatives.  Interviews and travel with people like Olga Gureyva who spent years in the island prison of Kolyma, arrested at 17, spent over a decade in captivity working in freezing tin mines; Petr Nechiporenko, a Professor at Kiev State University who fought for the Bolsheviks in the Civil War but was arrested and accused of being a fascist terrorist who was turned in by colleagues and killed; Eveniya Ginzburg, the Russian writer and Gulag chronicler is arrested and sent to prison as a supposed Nazi terrorist for over a decade, just scrape the surface of the thousands upon thousands imprisoned and died in the Gulag.  But people like Walker’s guide, Ivan Panikarov who built a museum in his own home describing the Gulag argued that Stalin’s crimes may have been necessary to industrialize and defeat the Nazis.  Many of the people who Walker interviewed wanted to forget the past and move on as it just hindered the development of a strong Russia.  Walker’s description of what they wanted to forget is in line with historians like Robert Conquest and Amy Knight, along with Russian writers Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vasily Grossman. 

(Stalin’s deportations from Estonia during WWII)

Walker mentions an interesting point that although Nikita Khrushchev’s De Stalinization speech of February 1956 created hopes of a more liberal Russia, he focused on the crimes of the Communist Party, and the vast network of camps was never discussed publicly.  Walker also asks an important question; was everyone guilty in perpetuating the system?   He concludes that there “were many varying shades of guilt and innocence. But almost everyone was at least partially a victim, almost everyone was at least partially a perpetrator.”

Putin’s strategy helped create a feeling of victimhood and martyrdom which would be offset by his perception of a successful Winter Olympics at Sochi, coming to terms with the Chechens after two wars and numerous terrorist attacks, and the successful invasion of Georgia in 2008 when Ukrainian president Mikheil Saakashvili decided to join the European Union and turned down a trade arrangement with Moscow, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.  Western media attacks assisted Putin in creating the narrative that the west wanted to blunt any attempt by Russia to return to greatness.  Putin turned loose his domestic media to carry his message and the FSB and company made sure that protest and the wrong mind set would not get out of control.

The latter half of the narrative focuses on the evolving conflict in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014.  He zeroes in on Kyiv’s Euromaidan protests, the annexation of Crimea, and the eruption of further conflict in the industrial Donbass region.  The developing conflict between Ukrainian and Russian identity is presented within an excellent historical perspective and analysis.

(Joseph Stalin)

If one examines Putin’s justification for invading the Ukraine on February 24th of this year it is clear he is turning to the Great Patriotic War as he accused the Kyiv regime of being made up of Nazis that had to be rooted out, and Ukraine was not a country because it was part of Russia and wanted to be reunited with its countrymen.

Walker has written a well-researched, provocative, and insightful book whose arguments seem accurate.  He uses the voices of authentic everyday Russians to tell his story.  He is careful to avoid viewing the west as morally superior.  Further, he provides a clear picture of Putin’s mindset and how he recaptured the faith of the Russian people in the state as well as in his leadership.  In Putin’s mind he has created a mindset for a whole new generation of Russians who will continue to influence the collective Russian psyche long after Putin finally leaves the Kremlin.  In the final analysis it is clear that though Walker authored his book in 2018, he foresaw the events of 2022 which are playing out in front of our eyes.

(Victory Day – World War II in Russia, May, 2022)