Today I’m bringing you a review of Safe Houses, a bit of an unusual read for me but a really good one. Many thanks to Abby and Knopf for letting me be a part of this tour and for giving me a copy of the book to review.
Blurb: 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 unauthorized encounter, one that will place her in the sightlines 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.
My Review: Espionage stories have never really been of interest to me, aside from James Bond and the recent film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy but this book, with its mystery and secrecy and a double murder, may have changed that.
I’m not old enough to remember the Cold War but I felt I got a good sense of the bleakness and constant suspicion from the authors descriptions of Berlin and the experiences of Helen. Naturally, having discovered things she shouldn’t have done, she becomes agitated and fearful and that came off the pages in waves. The story moves between Helen in 1979 and the double murder in 2014. The 2014 scenes were like a patch of blue sky after the grey, claustrophobia of 1979. Although there is a lot of intrigue and wariness in 2014 it does feel like I had more room to breathe when reading those scenes.
I’ve realised recently that I enjoy much more those books where the descriptions are such that I have a movie running in my head as I read. It’s an entirely subconscious thing that I can’t control but makes a huge difference to my enjoyment of a book. In this case, the descriptions were perfect, not too wordy but also crisp and clear. At one point Helen jumps somewhere and not only could I see that happening but I was also holding my breath in case she didn’t land safely. Writing like that is what I love and why I kept reading.
The characters were equally well written. I kept willing Helen to succeed and feeling frustrated with her when she was annoyed or things didn’t quite work as she’d hoped. In the 2014 scenes, the daughter hires an investigator whose life we know a reasonable amount about (given his chosen profession) and I appreciated and shared some of his emotions too, the daughter not so much for some reason. I think I was more interested in the investigator’s story than the daughters but I can’t figure out why that is.
I’ve not said a lot about the story but that’s because it would be tricky to do so without spoilers and I don’t do spoilers but believe me it is a book well worth reading.
Because the double murder and investigation of it is a big piece of the story I think this book would appeal to many crime fiction fans. This book would appeal to obviously, fans of espionage stories, but equally those who like psychological thrillers but that is what this book is, it plays with your brain so you view everything with suspicion, even banal, everday occurrences.
Given what I’ve said I’m going to leave you with a few tips: when you are reading, always make sure you’re facing the door, you don’t want people walking in behind you particularly during some scenes. Also you might want to have a stiff drink to hand, this is something that crops up a few times in the story and having read it I can certainly understand why!
About the author:
Dan Fesperman’s travels as a writer have taken him to thirty countries and three war zones. 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, and The Prisoner of Guantánamo won the Dashiell Hammett Award from the International Association of Crime Writers. He lives in Baltimore.