Spy Book Review by Shane ‘C' Whaley – Station V
Winter Work by Dan Fesperman
Those readers who enjoy a well-crafted cold war Berlin spy novel have been spoiled rotten this year. Three of the top American spy writers working today, thats Messrs Kanon, Vidich, and now Dan Fesperman, have published spy stories set in that era and in that city.
Following on from Berlin Exchange and The Matchmaker – A Spy in Berlin, I was keen to get stuck into Fesperman’s latest book, Winter Work. The story is set in 1990. East Germany is collapsing and in chaos, soon to become a ghost state.
Our protagonist, ex-Stasi officer Emil Grimm discovers the body of his neighbour in the forest where they live, just north of Berlin. Both officers served in the HVA, the Stasi’s foreign intelligence service headed by the infamous ‘man without a face’ Markus Wolf.
Grimm suspects foul play, which sets in place a chain of events that sees the former colonel ‘finishing off the job alone’ that he started working on with his neighbour, the now deceased Lothar.
CIA agent Clare Saylor is ordered to Berlin to contact a ranking Stasi officer in the race for Stasi secrets. Her mission and that of Grimm’s intersect to give us a gripping, suspenseful yet plausible spy which involves the crafty old spymaster Markus Wolf himself.
I write plausible because the plot in Winter Work is based on and inspired by real-life events. Watching the Stasi offices in Berlin being ransacked by angry East Germans on his television, the then President, Bush the Elder stated, ‘I hope we are getting some of that!’ This led to Operation Rosenholz, designed to grab as many of these secrets as possible, with the main prize being a list of the agents working for the HVA in the West.
Fesperman not only riffs off this operation, which was dubbed one of the CIA’s greatest triumphs, but he also peppers the book with expertly researched elements of East German life to give it that air of authenticity. Whether it is a brand of DDR cigarettes or ‘kaffee komplett’, which is the East German name for coffee with milk and sugar. It is worth noting that Dan Fesperman worked in Berlin during the early nineties as the foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, and he draws on that experience to expertly create Berlin in 1990.
Winter Worl includes the usual trope of the spy not telling their superior everything and acting alone in the field. In this case, CIA officer Clare Saylor forms a bond with Grimm and veteran CIA agent Baucom. But it does work, it does not feel forced; Saylor genuinely cares for the East German. That also goes for me as a reader. Fesperman’s talent for creating convincing characters had me rooting for the ex-Stasi officer. Fesperman plays with our emotions, though, as Grimm recalls a story from his past where he sought vengeance on a nosey neighbor which made me question whether I should be backing the protagonist.
There is limited action in this spy story which suits me just fine. Regular readers know I prefer the more gritty, realistic side of spy fiction. Yuri Volkov provides the action, a hired KGB hood. Without veering into Spoilerstrasse, there is one particularly gruesome murder which cranks up the suspense of this story, this is not the type of KGB agent who fires a bullet into the back of your head. That would be too neat and easy for this assassin. He is hot on the heels of Grimm, leaving the reader to wonder how this will play out. Fesperman teases us until the final page.
If you enjoy engaging realistic, cerebral cold war spy reads, then Winter Work is for you and should sit proudly alongside Vidich and Kanon’s 2022 Berlin offerings in your spy bookcase.