A mysterious murder; an unexplained disappearance: New novels take inspiration from events in history
Using real events as a springboard for fiction is a reliable writers’ tool, as two new crime novels demonstrate.
Dan Fesperman’s superlative “Safe Houses” (Knopf, 416 pp., $26.95) was inspired by a historical footnote to post-WWII spydom: The Pond, a semi-autonomous rival to the OSS, the predecessor to the CIA.
It’s 1979, and Helen Abell is a low-level CIA employee who maintains its West Berlin safe houses. It’s a fairly quiet life — until she witnesses two events, one puzzling and one horrible.
The first is a cryptic conversation about a pond. The second is an attempted rape. When Helen stops the assault and reports it to her superiors, they bluntly tell her to walk away.
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Which, of course, she can’t. Learning that the assailant is “Robert,” a CIA operative with a history of violence, Helen starts tracking him. A network of female CIA employees, all of them well aware of “Robert’s” actions, help her.
Jump to 2014. Helen Shoat has been murdered in her rural Maryland home. Her mentally ill son may be responsible, but his sister Anna rejects that. Aided by an investigator, Henry Mattick, she discovers that her seemingly innocuous mother was once Helen Abell — and died because of what she knew. Anna also begins to realize that Mattick isn’t quite who he says he is.
Fesperman, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, brings a journalist’s attention to detail into play, along with a gift for strong characters and plots.
(Bonus: He also writes convincing dialogue, unlike many journalists-turned-novelists. Maybe the freedom to invent quotes gets them all giddy?)
Flynn Berry’s astute thriller “A Double Life” (Viking, 320 pp., $26) also borrows from history: in this instance, the case of a dashing British aristocrat, Lord Lucan. Lucan disappeared in 1974, the day after his wife was savagely attacked and their nanny killed.
Berry re-imagines this from a striking viewpoint. Claire Alden is a reclusive London physician who has always lived with tragedy: When she was young, her aristocratic father apparently killed her nanny, attacked her mother, and disappeared.
Not surprisingly, Claire is obsessed. Was her father responsible? Did his privileged friends, who hated her working-class mother, help him escape? And if he’s alive, do they know his whereabouts?
Claire scours her memories and her mother’s diaries for clues, and a crucial lead comes when she anonymously befriends the daughter of one of her father’s cronies. With exquisite pacing, Edgar Award-winner Berry (“Under the Harrow”) guides us to a stunning conclusion.