Dan Fesperman clearly loves classic books of espionage fiction. So many of them are worked into the plot of The Double Game, and I smiled each time I recognized one of them, like Manning Coles's Tommy Hambledon books. Fesperman even includes an appendix listing, as he says, 218 books by 47 authors, 18 of whom worked in intelligence and six others who worked in foreign ministries or a war/defense office.
But Fesperman has larger goals in mind than paying homage to the giants of espionage fiction. He wants to bring the genre to life again. His protagonist, Bill Cage, is a former journalist, now toiling away at a PR job that it's clear he's weary and maybe even ashamed of.
Cage's journalism career at the Washington Post was crushed when his visa application for an assignment to 1992 Yugoslavia was denied without explanation. Did it have something to do with his youth in central Europe, when he lived in Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Budapest with his father, who was with the US Foreign Service? Or was it some sort of convoluted blowback from his 1984 Post story saying that American agent, now novelist, Edwin Lemaster had once considered working as a double agent for the Soviets?
Now, almost two decades after the Yugoslav debacle ended Cage's journalistic ambitions and signaled the beginning of the end of his marriage, international intrigue returns to his life. He begins receiving mysterious messages on paper he had squirreled away in his own home, written on his old manual typewriter. Messages that refer to passages from famous works of espionage fiction and give him instructions as if from an old-fashioned Cold War field agent's handler.
Cage can't resist accepting the assignment from his handler, despite the fact that he doesn't know who the handler is--or what the assignment is, for that matter. Off he jets to Vienna, where his retired father lives, and from there, successive new assignments arrive that take him to Prague and Budapest, old homes and acquaintances, including his first love, Litzi.
The game turns darker and more dangerous with each passing day, as it becomes clear that there are other forces at work here that want to make sure Cage isn't successful. And who can Cage trust when it appears those other forces may be playing a double game?
Fesperman knows his espionage fiction, especially the classics from the Cold War heyday--and many lesser-known works. Looked at as homage to those books, Fesperman's effort is entertaining and valuable.
Fesperman is less successful in bringing Cold-War-style espionage fiction into the modern era. He starts and finishes strongly, but in the meat of the sandwich, the plot is murky, pacing is flat and the key characters aren't compelling. I wasn't looking for an action thriller, but I was hoping for intriguing atmosphere and that feeling that there is a thread to be found and unraveled if you just use enough insight and ingenuity. Instead, Cage plods along ineffectually from one "assignment" to another, making countless wrong decisions until he finally stumbles upon the key that allows him to crack the case.
While I can only give the plot a passing grade, as a fan of Cold War espionage fiction I very much enjoyed the many references to espionage fiction and their authors, and I'm delighted with the appendix, which is a treasure trove of a bibliography.
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.
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