Safe Houses

Dan Fesperman

Head of Zeus £18.99

THIS, as schoolmistresses of a certain age were wont to say, is not Dan Fesperman’s best work.

This blunt appraisal is made for two reasons. First, it is better to deliver bad news quickly. Second, Lee Child, the creator of Jack Reacher, has declared on the cover of Safe Houses that it is “one of the great espionage novels of our time”. My view does not concur with that of the estimable Mr Child. There is, of course, a chasm in our respective achievements in the field of thriller writing that may suggest Mr Child is the more trusty adviser. This reviewer merely asserts that what one lacks in terms of best-selling experience is compensated for in terms of sincerity.

Fesperman is a writer of some pedigree. He has won the John Creasey Dagger, the Ian Fleming Dagger and the Hammett award. Safe Houses never reaches anywhere near the heights of his best work, particularly the Prisoner of Guantanamo and The Small Boat of Great Sorrows.

The problems with Safe Houses start with the foundations, though there is promise before it falls apart. There is a dual narrative. Dirty dealings in the espionage world of Berlin in 1979 run parallel to the murder of a farmer and his wife in Maryland in 2014. It is a decent set-up. What links the two stories? Why was a woman murdered 25 years after seemingly extricating herself from an awful situation? The early scenes of both strands are powerful and affecting.

But the intrigue peters out quickly. The plot may be initially alluring but is shown to have so many holes it could serve as a string vest. This, of course, is not inevitably fatal to a novel. But to survive this flaw the characters must be strong and credible. Their motivations have to be comprehensible.

It is difficult in Safe Houses to grasp just why Helen, the central character in the Berlin narrative, should sacrifice all and so quickly and definitively. Her resourcefulness in escaping pursuers is not matched by an ability to form a strategy that would have addressed her concerns in a more satisfactory manner.

In the Maryland episodes, a daughter arrives in town after her parents are shot to death, allegedly by her brother. Her resilience and resurrection in the face of this trauma makes Lazarus look like a malingerer. She bounds into action as if she has lost a spare set of car keys rather than her parents.

The story then rattles along well-worn paths. There is a pace to Fesperman’s writing and it survives in Safe Houses but the route has all the stereotypical signposts. There is the sinister spy agency still surviving when thought extinct, there is the seemingly innocent bystander who has an agenda, there is the villain for the ages. There is, of course, the final twist.

But it never quite convinces. The light characterisations and unconvincing dialogue make the lead characters insubstantial and the story increasingly improbable. Safe Houses sinks under these burdens and ends with the sort of ‘tying up all the ends’ technique worthy of Murder She Wrote.

There is another disappointing aspect. Fesperman, once a journalist, has used his knowledge and experience to write novels of some originality. This is not one of them.

The espionage novel remains an excellent gateway to examine major themes. It has produced some of the most fascinating writing and in an accessible form. It still continues to provoke and illuminate with Mick Herron, Joseph Kanon and Alan Furst among contemporary authors who use the form to excellent effect.

Fesperman in his previous work has shown that he, too, realises that the spy novel can say something significant. He has previously applied a veneer of authenticity to originality and authenticity and has been rewarded with sales and the praise of his peers.

But Safe Houses is a misstep. Its undoubted energy cannot disguise a lack of purpose. The damning verdict is delivered uneasily because Fesperman is much better than this. It is also made in the humble realisation that this reviewer may be wrong and Lee Childs might be right. But he would need to send Jack Reacher round to persuade me.