There are two leading strands to the thriller genre: the globetrotting blockbuster in which paper-thin characters crack a ridiculously complicated code, and the intelligent novel with psychology foregrounded. American writer Dan Fesperman is firmly in the latter camp, but can also raise readers’ pulses... Fesperman’s ambitious time-split narrative – moving between Maryland in 2014 and west Berlin in 1979 – allows the author to explore the very different attitudes of the two periods, not least the endemic sexism of Helen’s era of espionage. The duplicity of the secret world becomes a metaphor for wider human betrayal.
The early scenes of both strands are powerful and affecting... the intrigue peters out quickly. The plot may be initially alluring but is shown to have so many holes it could serve as a string vest... There is a pace to Fesperman’s writing and it survives...but the route has all the stereotypical signposts... The light characterisations and unconvincing dialogue make the lead characters insubstantial and the story increasingly improbable. Safe Houses sinks under these burdens and ends with the sort of ‘tying up all the ends’ technique worthy of Murder She Wrote... undoubted energy cannot disguise a lack of purpose.
This novel stumbles at the outset, it should be said: One fortuitously overheard conversation in a safe house is a fair device to trigger a thriller; two is stretching credulity. But that bump in the road having been negotiated, what follows is a smooth ride, a novel belying its historical origins with a #MeToo slant.... The narrative choreography demanded by Fesperman’s split timelines is expertly handled, and the dilemma faced by Helen, in particular — whether to be a good employee or a good citizen — illustrates the kind of weight that the spy novel, in the right hands, is capable of bearing.