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It’s a Mystery: “Life is what happens to ‘trust no one’”

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The Double GameDoubleGame

By Dan Fesperman
Knopf, 2012

In Mortal Consequences: A History from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, Julian Symons points out, “The special qualities of John Le Carré’s books are their sense of place, their sense of doom, their sense of irony…. Le Carré shows that spying is a sort of game in which, without wearing comic noses or any kind of disguise, people pretend to be what they are not.”

So far there has been no spy fiction hero to vie with a classic detective like Sherlock Holmes for longevity or fame. This may be due to the fact that “spy story” is in itself a misnomer. A detective story is built entirely around the character of the detective. Without him there would be no story; he must, therefore, survive until the end. But the main figure in a spy story, if he is technically a spy, cannot be expected to have too long a life: sooner or later he will be “blown,” or “taken to the cleaners.” When referring to the spy story we are talking of spymasters, double agents as well as agents of hired killers, planters of misinformation, and, oh yes, that unassuming little man at the corner shop who operates a kind of letter-box for agents. That little man may be long gone, or not, how to know? But he has figured prominently in many a spy story. As has often been said in novels about spies, everyone watches everyone else all of the time.

All of the above applies to Dan Fesperman’s The Double Game. It is at once a finely tuned contemporary spy novel and a delectably, wry celebration of some of the best writers of espionage fiction. The action opens fittingly in 1984, “Orwell’s year of reckoning.” Bill Cage, a young Washington journalist on the make, scores high marks with his editor for getting an interview with Edwin Lemaster.

Not only was Lemaster the world’s premier espionage novelist, but he’d been a spy for sixteen years at the height of the Cold War, back when spying was a glamorous profession. “Our le Carré,” the American critics called him, although to my mind le Carré was “Their Lemaster.”

Cage scores even higher marks with the inadvertent revelation that Lemaster, while discussing his magnum opus The Double Game, hints that he might have been a double agent.

“You wrote The Double Game while you were still with the CIA….Did you ever play with the idea of crossing the line yourself?”…

“As a matter of fact,” Lemaster said slowly, yes I did contemplate it. Not for ideological reasons, of course. … 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?”

…So, with a dark sense of foreboding and, worse, of betrayal, I wrote a story saying that spy-turned-novelist Edwin Lemaster had once considered working for the Soviet Union.

With that particular cat out of the bag and in print, Lemaster’s life changes:

He soon lost his edge, tilting toward rightist political themes and straying into techno-thrillers—beloved by the Pentagon but disdained by his oldest fans.

Here I must pause to share much of the fun of this novel. Fesperman has his tongue firmly in his cheek. Not only is Lemaster a play on le Carré, Lemaster’s rather frumpy top spy is Richard Folly, whose name and physical description reminds us of George Smiley. The spy story called The Double Game is featured in a spy story called The Double Game. And that’s just the beginning!

DoppleFast forward to 2010. Cage now works in Public Relations, his cherished journalistic career never having recovered from the Lemaster “outing.” He is lured into a web of intrigue by a nameless individual who suggests that there is a lot more to the Lemaster double agent story. It begins with a hand-delivered letter that promises to uncover “the whole truth” about Lemaster. What is really spooky, no pun intended, is that the letter is typed on Cage’s special stationary with his typewriter. And there is no sign of forced entry. The letter contains multiple literary references which when deciphered leads him to a dead drop—in the spy trade a secret place for stashing messages. The drop points him towards his father. Cage is definitely hooked. The game’s afoot, or, as the end of the first note says, “Welcome to the real Double Game.”

So faster than you can say “I spy,” Cage takes a leave of absence and is off to Vienna, where his father lives and the scene of some of Cage’s richest boyhood memories. Since he needs a plausible excuse to go snooping around in his old backyard of Europe, he wangles a freelance assignment from a friend at Vanity Fair to do a piece on the espionage career of Edwin Lemaster:

Building a legend as Folly would have put it. To do the work of a spy, I would have to start behaving like one, especially if someone was already tracking me.

God and spying. Father and son. A mole’s two masters. Tandems were much on my mind, after my night of eerie visitations. Let the Double Game proceed.

Here are shades of le Carré’s Magnus Pym and son in The Perfect Spy—which, we learn later on, is Cage’s favorite of the non-Smiley books:

Magnus was the author’s alter ego. But in another way he was more like me—an only child raised by a single parent, the product of an insular upbringing in which father and son were almost always on the move.

In Vienna, Cage’s father’s house contains a rare collection of espionage novels. Cage grew up devouring the Cold War part of the library, including all of the Lemasters. He returns to it knowing he will need his encyclopedic knowledge of spy fiction to handle anything his anonymous handler will throw at him.

I knew the vital statistics of his collection by heart: 222 novels by 48 authors. Eighteen had worked for intelligence agencies, six more for a foreign ministry or a war office, so you knew the pages were spiked with disguised secrets.

Secrets that implicate his father? Were these classic cold war era spy novels actually doing double duty as encrypted memoirs? The next key clue leads him to an answer of sorts. Cage has a “chance” meeting with the most important lady from his past, Litzi Strauss. Definitely a keeper of secrets. And although he should know better, he takes her into his confidence and teams up with her. The trail takes them from Vienna to Prague to Budapest and back again.

Along the way there is danger, even death. Nothing is as it seems. Cage and Litzi have trouble sorting the real from the unreal. All the shadowy characters they run into cunningly resemble characters in spy novels. One who is omnipresent is Lothar Heinemann. All Cage knows is that Lothar is a legend, a book scout extraordinaire and responsible for much of his father’s collection.

Some of the choicest finds were his. Ask Lothar to find a needle in a haystack and he’ll be back inside a week with five to choose from, plus a sewing box. He’s a genius.

So why is Lothar ubiquitous? Was Cage’s father a spy? What is his father’s real relationship to Litzi? What role did Jim Angleton the original Cold Warrior play in all of this? Was Lemaster on a par with Philby? Is the identity of his handler in plain sight? Is this novel based on real events? Is fact and fiction virtually indistinguishable here?

Far be it for me to ruin the joy of The Double Game by answering any of these questions. Suffice it to say, in keeping with Fesperman’s virtuoso utilization of spy fiction, there is a nifty climax. A true story? The author swears any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.