Clandestine meetings in West Berlin.
Dead drops in Prague, the nearby sidewalk marked with yellow chalk to show it’s safe.
Coded messages over unsecure phone lines. Talk for less than two minutes, then move to another booth.
Watching over your shoulder, because it’s obvious someone has been shadowing you for the past three days, and it’s a good bet he isn’t friendly.
Welcome to the world of the spy novel. I used to love those things, back in the late 70s and 80s. I think my first discovery was Robert Ludlum, though I can no longer remember which was the first of his I read, or what sparked my interest. There was something special about all those plots and counterplots, the deceptions, the intricate ways of communicating and keeping secrets. Long before the internet, these people traded in information. Except, for them, the goal was always to get information from the enemy without giving any away.
They fell pretty much by the wayside once the Berlin Wall came down. The big motivator for these novels was the Cold
War, and it was hard to find a good spy novel that wasn’t centered around the struggle between democracy and communism. Always we fought what Reagan called the Evil Empire, and along the way discovered things about ourselves and the idea of loyalty that maybe we didn’t know any more.
I could get lost for hours in one of them. Of course, there were variations. Mr. Ludlum was fond of things planted years ago—say during the Third Reich—coming to fruition in later years, with possibly disastrous consequences.
That sort of idea is what’s at the center of The Double Game by Dan Fesperman. It deals with old Soviet secrets that are still hanging around, causing trouble.
The protagonist is one Bill Cage, a disillusioned PR man. He’s a Foreign Service brat and grew up in cities that figured large in many spy novels: Prague, Budapest, and Vienna chief among them. He played at being a spy when he was a kid, and his father collected spy novels, amassing a library of over two hundred volumes, many of them signed first editions.
But Bill wasn’t always a disillusioned fifty-something. Back in the 80s, he was an up and coming journalist for the Washington Post, and in 1984 he got a chance to interview Ed Lemaster, spy-turned-novelist. In an offhand moment, Bill asks Ed if he’d ever thought about spying for the other side, what in the parlance is called turning double. He’d written a novel about just that, called The Double Game, in which his hero spy, Richard Folly, discovers that his best friend, Don Tolleson, is a Soviet double agent.
“As a matter of fact,” Lemaster said slowly, “yes. I did contemplate it. Not for ideological reasons, of course. And certainly not for the money. But it crossed my mind, and do you know why?”
I shook my head, not daring to speak. The revolving wheels of the recorder vibrated against my chest like a trapped bumblebee.
“For the thrill of it. The challenge. To just walk through the looking glass and find out how they really lived on the other side—well, isn’t that the secret dream of every spy?”
Bill doesn’t intend to reveal this. But the next day, hungover and trying to please his editor, he blurts out what Lemaster told him, even as he’s thinking of how to use it in the closing paragraphs as an anecdote. But the editor changes the story, leads with the bombshell, and by 1992, Bill’s career is over.
Fast forward to September of 2010. Bill receives a mysterious envelope with only his formal name on it. He takes it to his study and reads:
Message posted for you concerning the whole truth about your onetime acquaintance, Mr. E.L. of Maine. To retrieve, use Folly’s tradecraft, page 47. Then use book code, line 11. The dead drop will be known to you, just as it was to Ashenden from the very beginning. Welcome to the real Double Game.
The kicker is, he realizes it was typed with his own typewriter, and it’s on his own paper, some he bought in Germany when he was seventeen. His office door is still locked, nothing else missing except one sheet of paper and one enevelope.
Thus begins Bill’s journey back to his childhood. He’ll even reunite with Litzi Strauss, a girl he knew in Vienna thirty-plus years ago. He’ll follow clues left in spy novels, using passages cut from the pages to tell him what to do next. And along the way, he’ll discover that nothing is as it appears. And in the end, he’ll decide that from now on, any novel that uses the usual disclaimer are the real truth, while the so-called nonfiction is full of blatant lies.
I enjoyed going back to something like old Cold War tensions. As nasty and gloomy as that war was, in my opinion it produced some wonderful reading. I ate up all those clandestine actions against the Evil Empire, the dead drops, coded messages, intricate ways of traveling to make sure you lose anyone who might be following. In short, the tradecraft. The methods fascinated me, and the only thing I’ve found since that even approaches it is the cleverness really good criminals—and despite shows like America’s Dumbest Criminals, there are criminal masterminds out there—use to commit their crimes.
So if you liked the old spy novels like I did and would like to revisit them in a modern setting, pick up a copy of The Double Game. If it seems slow at times, you’ll finish it realizing there was always something going on, even if it was offstage.
Just where a lot of action happened in the best spy novels.
And you can revisit old memories, too, in the bibliography the author provides in the back of 222 books (some of them allegedly fictional) in the genre.
And even if you never read any of those old novels, try this one out. It’s got plenty of twists and turns and shadowy figures to go around, and you might just discover a new passion in fiction.