THE ARMS MAKER OF BERLIN
By Dan Fesperman
Knopf, 384 pp., $24.95
“Intelligent thriller” is almost an oxymoron, given that the whole purpose of the genre is to ... well, you know, thrill. I mean, nobody reads Dan Brown for serious insight into the history of Christianity and the politics of the Roman Catholic church. (Well, they shouldn't, anyway.) All that ingenious plot-twisting and hair's-breadth-escaping from deadly intrigue tends to annihilate anything like thought.
Which may be why novels like Dan Fesperman's are so rare – or at any rate not as popular as Brown's, or James Patterson's, or any number of other masters of the nonstop page-turner. Fesperman just can't help drawing on his experience as a journalist covering foreign conflicts, most recently for the Baltimore Sun. And that experience puts the meat on the intricate bone structure of his thriller plots. You come away from a Fesperman novel not only abuzz with the exhilaration of the chase, but also aware that you've absorbed something of the complexity of the world's conflicts, grown more keenly aware that they're are a lot more complicated than politicians and ideologues make them out to be.
Fesperman's “The Prisoner of Guantánamo,” for example, gave the reader a glimpse of the culture of that notorious place of incarceration, more vivid and subtle than anything you'd find in news reports, and it did so in the guise of a murder mystery and a spy chase. “The Amateur Spy” took us to a crossroads of Middle Eastern terrorist intrigue and discovered something that's easy to forget: Human beings with the essential traits of being human – hopes, ideals, needs, desires, as well as cruelty and weakness and fallibility -- dwell there.
The typical Fesperman hero is a guy with a certain amount of expertise and often a shadowed past who finds that experience and expertise aren't always quite enough to keep him out of trouble. Usually, as in any good thriller, there's a beautiful woman involved, one who is almost certainly not what she seems. So it is with with “The Arms Maker of Berlin”: Nat Turnbull, mild-mannered history professor, finds himself in cahoots (and bed) with a mysterious and alluring German woman, Berta Heinkel, as they try to locate some documents that may have led to the death of Turnbull's mentor, a retired, alcoholic and recently disgraced historian.
These documents are not just a Hitchcockian McGuffin, the gimmick that drives the plot, but they're also a portal into the history of Germany in the twentieth century. They have to do with the dark past of Kurt Bauer, a German industrialist best known to the public as a manufacturer of household appliances but also ... well, the title kind of gives it away. And what puts Turnbull into thriller-style jeopardy is not only that Bauer, described by one character as “a man whose little black book could help someone build the next nuclear weapon,”
While the story of Turnbull's sleuthing unfolds, Fesperman also flashes back sixty-odd years to the story of young Kurt Bauer, who at 17 falls in love with a pretty girl, Liesl Folkerts, who belongs to an anti-Hitler group known as the White Rose. For Bauer, love trumps politics, and that leads him to do something that has grave consequences, an action recorded in the documents Turnbull is looking for. Both stories – Turnbull's and Bauer's – are deftly told, the fiction underpinned with historical details and populated with real human beings such as the German anti-Hitler theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the American spymaster Allen Dulles. And Fesperman's fictional characters, particularly Kurt Bauer, are smartly imagined and subtly drawn.
But what truly animates the novel is Fesperman's awareness of how the calamitous history of Germany in the twentieth century continues to inform current events. From Turnbull's point of view – and Fesperman's – the “cast of players” is “Modern Germany made flesh, in all its macabre and tragic grandeur.” “The Arms Maker of Berlin” doesn't have quite the breathless immediacy and headlong action of Fesperman's ripped-from-the-headlines terrorism tales, “The Prisoner of Guantánamo” and “The Amateur Spy”, which makes it less successful as a thriller. But on the intelligence side of the “intelligent thriller” conundrum, it's a stronger and subtler, and perhaps more satisfying book.
Since I mentioned "The Prisoner of Guantánamo" and "The Amateur Spy" in the review, I'll append my reviews of them, too:
By Dan Fesperman
Knopf, 336 pp., $24
The problem with writing a novel whose story is ripped from the headlines is that the headlines keep coming after the novel is published. Obsolescence sets in.
But Dan Fesperman knows something about headlines: As a foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun he was responsible for quite a few of them. And he knows something about novels: He's one of the best writers of intelligent thrillers based on contemporary events working today.
So even though headlines about Guantánamo keep coming, Fesperman's novel The Prisoner of Guantánamo hasn't lost any of its edge and urgency.
Set in the summer of 2003, before the hubris in the phrase "mission accomplished" was fully evident, the novel centers on Revere Falk, an FBI interrogator whose fluency in Arabic has gotten him assigned to Guantánamo, a place he knows well, having been stationed there as a young Marine. Falk's "pet project" is a young Yemeni, Adnan el-Hamdi, who was captured in
Meanwhile, the Cubans have discovered the body of a soldier stationed at Guantánamo washed up on the shore on their side of the fence. Falk, the son of a
The Arabic-speaking interpreters and interrogators are regarded with suspicion on the base, especially by the rank-and-file soldiers, who "tended to hear from their officers 24/7 that each and every one of the detainees was a hardened killer and an experienced terrorist, who in at least some way shared responsibility for 9/11. It was part of the effort to keep them motivated and boost their morale." So when a translator working for a security contractor at Guantánamo is arrested, and there's a sudden influx of investigators from Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, Falk gets wary. He's also surprised that one of the investigators is an old friend, Ted Bokamper, from the State Department.
Falk owes a lot to Bokamper. When Falk was a Marine stationed at Guantánamo, he was curious about the
So now, along with Adnan's cryptic revelation, the soldier's mysterious drowning and the translator's arrest, Falk gets word that his Cuban contact wants to meet with him. Something's going on, but what? In the course of figuring it out, Falk will learn the wisdom of the adage: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. If, that is, you can tell which is which.
There's some standard thriller plotting here, with the usual shadowy alliances and betrayals, a bit of action and some hide-and-seek chases, and the ending has something of an anticlimactic feeling. But what makes the novel work is the attention to detail, especially Fesperman's evocation of Guantánamo – a.k.a. Gitmo -- itself. He gives us the physical layout -- the 45 square miles of swamp, six square miles of which is habitable; the barracks and the detention facilities; the fences and the sea; the soldiers, American and Cuban, keeping a steady eye on one another – but he's even better at creating the emotional atmosphere, the tedium and the tension, the paranoia and the boredom.
It's the right setting for a thriller, but the trick is not to let the sensations of fiction trivialize the reality. It's pretty clear where Fesperman stands on the controversy over Guantánamo, which he views in the light of Abu Ghraib and the subsequent debate over torture. The novel's principal female character, Pam Cobb, Falk's girlfriend and fellow interrogator, has been successful enough with conventional methods that she has avoided the orders to "attempt to get information from detainees by sexually humiliating them. One of Pam's shapelier but less fortunate roommates ended up stripping to her bra and panties in one such attempt. … The subjects only retreated deeper into anger and silence. The interrogator … locked herself into a restroom for an hour, sobbing in shame."
And Fesperman obviously has no use for neoconservative hawks, "out to save the world one conquest at a time," for the novel hinges on the possibility of another "splendid little war" – as the one in Iraq was thought to be in mid-2003. He's also snarky about the jargon of power-players like the guy from Homeland Security who says things like, "Other than
Back in the early '90s, there was some naïve speculation that the end of the Cold War had made the thriller irrelevant, that the moral angst of John Le Carré and the flag-waving technolatry of Tom Clancy would go out of style. But the world remained scary and violent, as Fesperman himself demonstrated in his earlier novels set in
THE AMATEUR SPY
By Dan Fesperman
Knopf, 384 pp., $23.95
It’s the one thing a thriller writer has to have, and the one thing a reviewer must not reveal very much of. Which makes reviewing thrillers difficult because, frankly, most thrillers don’t have much of anything else.
Dan Fesperman has two good plots in his new novel, “The Amateur Spy.” Here are their setups.
Freeman Lockhart, a retired United Nations aid worker, is blackmailed into spying on an old friend. He doesn’t even know which country he’s spying for, or what his handlers, who seem to be American, hope to find out. He just knows that if he doesn’t do what they tell him to do, he risks the exposure of a secret from his past and that of his Bosnian-born wife, Mila.
Aliyah Rahim, an Arab-American woman, learns that her husband, Abbas, a prominent surgeon in
The paths of Freeman and Aliyah will cross in
But Fesperman’s novel transcends the formulas. He uses suspense to draw you into the world in which his characters live, which unsettlingly happens to be the one we live in. As a foreign news reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Fesperman witnessed his share of the world’s conflicts in
Every action of “The Amateur Spy” is rooted in a locale, whether it’s
But what especially lifts Fesperman’s thriller above the confines of its genre is the author’s empathy for those caught in the crossfire of the world’s conflicts. That he makes his narrator-protagonist a former UN aid worker, a would-be neutral, is no random choice. The operative irony of the novel is that Freeman (whose name is only a couple of consonants and a little anagramming away from “Fesperman”) wants to be a free man – one without a country -- because he has seen what harm can be done by the zeal of patriots and ideologues. But when he arrives in
Worse things than a waiter’s scorn happen to Freeman and Aliyah and others in the novel, but the author’s alertness to such smaller tensions makes “The Amateur Spy” come alive. Fesperman has mastered his genre, but he often breaks out of its confines. You can sense him trying to move away from Tom Clancy and John Grisham and toward writers like Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, writers with a nuanced and ambivalent vision of the world and its conflicts. (Aliyah’s plight is reminiscent of that of Winnie Verloc, the anarchist’s wife in Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” although Aliyah shrugs off the passivity in which Winnie was trapped.)
Throughout the novel, Fesperman reminds us that the world is a lot more complicated than the TV pundits, politicians and lockstep superpatriots would have us believe. Sometimes he does it with sly wit, as when Freeman hears a group in a hotel bar celebrating their release from the daytime fast of Ramadan: “The revelers began clapping to the beat, drowning out the muezzin, and the band broke into the disco standby ‘I Will Survive.’ Interesting to think of it as some sort of Palestinian anthem.”
And more than once he reminds us of the world’s pain, as when Aliyah reflects that she can’t tell her friend Nancy “that sometimes it gave her comfort to see news footage of American mothers grieving for their lost soldier boys, killed in