Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Dan Fesperman has gained immense amounts of knowledge from his work as an international reporter, and he has put it to excellent use for his career as a writer, penning one bestselling thriller after the next. In his latest novel, Winter’s Work, he tells the story of two agents on different sides of the Cold War, each tasked with their own dangerous assignment, and the unexpected ways in which their fates intersect.
Table of contents
Dan Fesperman Heats up the Cold War
Never was there a time in human history when espionage prospered as much as it has during the Cold War. Those short few decades gave rise to so many techniques and prominent masters, we’re still sifting through the secrets they left behind, whether they escaped, were extradited, imprisoned, or executed. In Winter Work by Dan Fesperman, we are taken to the very end of said war, where chaos begins to reign supreme.
The novel begins right after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and introduces us to Emil Grimm, a Stasi colonel who feels none too welcome in the new world order he’s about to become part of. Perhaps more alarmingly, he just discovered the body of his neighbour, Lothar, a fellow Stasi officer. Despite the scene looking like suicide, Emil knows better; he’s looking at a cold-blooded murder.
A few months earlier, things would have been different, and he would have known what to do. Now, however, his status as a Stasi is his greatest liability. Him and Lothar were involved in a clandestine mission of great importance, and despite his partner’s untimely demise, Emil is hell-bent on finishing the job alone, in a world where all allegiances don’t mean much anymore.
On the other side of the fallen curtain, the CIA agent Claire Saylor finds herself in Berlin to assist with the mopping up of her agency’s East German opponents. Upon her arrival she receives her assignment, the entire reason she was sent for in the first place: to become the sole designated contact for an extremely high-ranking foreign intelligence officer.
Unfortunately for Claire, her first rendez-vous already turns sour, leading to a near catastrophe right from the start. With little information to work with, she realizes she has found herself in a rather delicate situation, and it doesn’t help one bit that her path is about to intersect with Emil’s in ways neither of them could have possibly predicted.
Portrait of an Era in Winter Work
I guess it wouldn’t be much of a revelation if I said that I myself never witnessed the Cold War, just like many of you I’m certain. The amount of people who have lived through and remember those days is drastically diminishing, but I feel like overall, they’ve done a tremendous job at chronicling the events of those tense few decades, whether through official documents or word-of-mouth.
I think I speak for many people when I say that it would be interesting to go back in time as a simple observer, just to see and feel what it was like to live in a world which, from today’s modern perspective, seems so distant and drastically-different. While nothing could actually equal a time machine, Dan Fesperman certainly tries his best to turn Winter Work into something of the kind.
From the first few pages it becomes blatantly obvious that the author must have conducted an incredible amount of research into the subject, also likely drawing from his own experiences as well (he was born in 1955). He has a true talent for depicting settings with the sort of care and detail one can only achieve when they have a crystal-clear picture of what they’re trying to convey.
Naturally, the author explores both sides of the Cold War, as is mandated by the nature of the topic itself. While I can’t personally vouch for the accuracy of what he has shown here, I can say that he illustrates it all with such convincing specifics that it feels truly realistic, as if the author decided to novelize a history book.
Naturally, with this novel being an espionage thriller, there are limits to how much Dan Fesperman can show of such a complicated period in human history, but rest assured, the action always lines up with the standards and expectations he creates with his portrayal of the era. Like I said before, nothing can really beat a time machine, but this novel comes about as close as one could get.
A Cacophony of Spies
Even he does take some detours here and there for the sake of world-building, Dan Fesperman mostly allows it to happen naturally through the development of the plot and the actions of the many characters we come across. Some are more important than others, quite obviously, but all of them come together and play an irreplaceable role in making this espionage novel an actual thriller.
The author captured quite well in Winter Work what I imagine must have been an incredibly turbulent time in intelligence agencies, with officers running for cover left and right, looking for new masters and engineering final betrayals. One can never be certain of the true intentions behind anyone’s words or actions, and the reader is pushed to become, in a sense, a detective, trying to figure out what game is truly being played behind the curtains.
I will admit, some of the characters weren’t as fleshed out as I would have liked them to be, leaving a few important blanks to fill in regarding their motivations and back stories. On the other hand, I completely understand the need to trim the fat away, so-to-speak, and maintain the novel’s rapid pace. Additionally, I can’t say I don’t entirely appreciate the author leaving some things up to my imagination.
Emil and Claire make for excellent protagonists, though I’d have to say I found the former a lot more intriguing, if only for the fact that he is shrouded in mystery, one we must try and decipher by his actions, which sometimes seem a little senseless until further down the line. This isn’t to say Claire had nothing to offer, but I clearly found myself drawn to one more than the other.
Generally-speaking, I’m not a huge fan of reading espionage novels with a huge cast of characters (John le Carre made sure of that), but in this novel it actually works because it’s approached in the right way. We’re always made aware of whether someone is important or forgettable, making it much easier to keep track of the right people and watch as their curved roads intersect at the unlikeliest of places, leading to some of the more exciting showdowns I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in a spy novel.
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The Final Verdict
Winter Work by Dan Fesperman is a top-notch Cold War espionage thriller, one which succeeds in transporting the reader back through time with its moving depiction of settings and characters, as well as in offering some of the more exciting clashes between intelligence agencies in recent memory.
If you’re a fan of Cold War spy novels and are in search of a quality new addition to your collection, then I think this book will be straight up your alley.
Dan Fesperman is a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun, but more importantly, the author of several thrillers, many inspired by his own work on international assignments. He is the recipient of the 1999 The John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for best first novel for Lie in the Dark, the 2003 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for best thriller for The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, and the 2006 Hammett Prize for The Prisoner of Guantanamo.