OK, the book itself wasn't really wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, just encased in a wrapper cleverly designed to make it look as if it was. Which is, in itself, a nod to the book's plot, which has protagonist Bill Cage, a middle-aged PR guy in Washington, DC, thoroughly disillusioned with his life, head off to central Europe in an apparently quixotic quest to prove that one of his youthful idols, reclusive spy-turned espionage writer, Edwin Lemaster, may in fact have been a double agent. Once, years ago when Cage was still an ambitious journalist, he had unexpectedly scored an interview with Lemaster, and even more surprisingly winkled out of the novelist the admission that he had contemplated becoming a double. "For the thrill of it. The challenge." When Cage publishes his story, the news becomes a brief sensation, Lemaster becomes still more reclusive and never grants another interview. That's where this particular novel begins, linking Cage, Lemaster and Cage's father in espionage and tales of espionage. But what is reality? It ends up seeming just as difficult for Cage to discern as a mysterious series of letters (written on distinctive paper he keeps locked up in his study at home) spark his investigation and questions swirl about the real meaning of a mysterious series of book sales and exchanges dating back decades -- all of the books wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string.
Fesperman doesn't have the prowess of Ambler or LeCarre, but fans of those iconic figures can still delight in this book as a tribute to their heroes. Segments of classics of the espionage genre are clues, ushering Cage on his way at critical points in his quest to discover the truth about Lemaster. A mysterious handler -- clearly a former "spook" far better versed in CIA tradecraft than is Cage, whose knowledge has been derived from the spy novels he devoured in his youth -- is paving his way, but to what end? And who else might be interested in discovering the truth about Lemaster, or perhaps about other Cold War secrets long buried? Each step Cage takes seems to take him closer to some of those discoveries -- perhaps... -- but also further back into his own personal history. The clues lead him from one to another of the cities he inhabited at the height of the Cold War, a motherless child whose father was posted to U.S. embassies in Belgrade, Budapest, Prague, Vienna and Berlin. Cage's handler seems to know an awful lot about his personal background as well as his interest in Lemaster -- and could Cage have played more of a role than even he suspected in those long-ago events. Is Bill Cage now starring in his own spy novel? And if so, who is the author; who is scripting the action?
There are many entertaining twists and turns here, and even if some of them are slightly predictable, I would have felt churlish complaining about that, given the intricacy of the narrative, as Fesperman entwines his own story with that of the history of the espionage thriller itself. Certainly, watching Cage transform from a former devoted reader of classic spy novels -- a passion he once shared with both his father and Lemaster -- into a participant in the Great Game. Ultimately, it simply didn't matter much to me that this novel isn't as accomplished as many of the classics that Fesperman cites. It was simply a fun read, both in its own right and for the "wink, wink; nudge, nudge" factor as the author drags in one twist after another ripped from the pages of those classics. Fan fiction at its best, and a "thumping good read" in its own right. What is artifice and fiction, and what is reality? Not even the characters seem to know, all the time. "Next you'll think I'm acting like someone in a book, and I'm guessing I won't like the comparison," one character tells Cage midway through the novel, rather bitterly.
The bottom line? If you're looking for nonstop thrills, chills and action, this isn't the book for you. (It's more like Alan Furst's novels than those of Daniel Silva, with the emphasis on character and a gradually increasing sense of tension, rather than violence.) It's a novel about the secrets that spies keep -- both professionally and personally -- and the layers that must be unraveled in order to arrive at something resembling the "truth". I'm giving it 4.5 stars, and recommending it heartily to fans of the genre.
My copy of this book -- complete with the imaginative packaging -- came from the publisher via Amazon.com's Vine reviewer program.