Tony's Reviews > The Double Game

The Double Game by Dan Fesperman
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's review
Sep 22, 12

bookshelves: novels
Read in January, 2012

On the strength of having enjoyed Fesperman's debut novel (Lie in the Dark), I decided to pick this new one up to see if should hunt down his backlist. But it's never a good sign when a book lingers on my nightstand once I've cracked it open, and this one lingered for several months, generally failing to draw me into picking it back up. About 3/4 of the way though, I almost set it aside for good, but then like a desperate weekender at the casino, I threw good money (time) after bad and plowed on until the bitter end. The book suffers from two major flaws to my mind. The first is that the protagonist elicits neither empathy nor interest from the reader -- I just never cared at all what happened to him. The second is that it's a book about books to a certain extent, and when those kind of metatextual frames don't work for me, they really flop hard.

The story follows a divorced, 50ish journalist who is drawn deeply into a web of Cold War-era secrets. Someone using passages (actually pages) from real-life spy thrillers has goaded him into retracing the stations of an old spy network in Vienna/Prague/Budapest/Berlin, one that may or may not be connected to a man who went on to become a bestselling author (kind of an American Le Carré), who himself might have been a spy himself back in the '60s, and possibly a double-agent working for the Soviets. It's all pretty convoluted, and about halfway through the book, there's a passage which gives a little summary, for those struggling to keep up: "I seem to be tracking an informational trail for some sort of courier network set up by [the author] back in the sixties, when he was an operative, on behalf of source code-named Dewey, who may or may not have been known to, or even used by, the KGB." This highlights another of the book's problems, as the journalist pokes into the past, there's not a lot of meaning for the present and the stakes just don't seem that large relative to the effort being undertaken.

Some elements of the book are based on real people and events, and of course, there is plenty of detail about the locations. However, neither exotic old-Europe cities, nor the cut and thrust of the retracing of the old spy network can make up for the fact that the hero is just kind of flat on the page. The author is trying to set up a kind of Hitchcockian everyman type (a la The Man Who Knew too Much), but it never really sparks, not even when he is reunited with his teenage flame. And while I appreciate the device of using classic espionage books -- a number of which I've read -- as part of the riddle, it feels more like the author amusing himself than something organic to the story. In the end, I can't really imagine anyone besides hardcore espionage fiction enthusiasts caring very much for this.
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Lisa It's not grabbing me either as his past novels have done. Struggling to get thru it.

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