Shrewd twists offset Double Games’ many shortcomings

THE DOUBLE GAME

By Dan Fesperman

Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95;
356 pp.

During the Cold War, the great prize of the battle between the American CIA and the Soviet KGB was recruiting a deep penetration agent, a “mole”: so called because he was to burrow deeply into another nation’s intelligence apparatus before betraying its secrets. Without question, the KGB was more successful than the CIA at this placing of moles, with Kim Philby, who rose to become the second ranking official in Great Britain’s MI6, perhaps the supreme example. Philby was so convincing that he became the best friend of James Jesus Angleton, head of counterintelligence for the CIA.

When Philby finally came under suspicion and fled to the Soviet Union, Angleton was profoundly distressed. Convinced that he must have missed other moles, moles at the CIA, he became obsessed with tracking them down. During the mid 1960s, two Soviet defectors, Anatoli Golitsyn and Yuri Nosenko, told the CIA utterly different accounts of Soviet effort to plant moles. Angleton and a few close associates believed Golitsyn; the rest of the CIA believed Nosenko. The result was a mole chase that nearly tore the CIA apart.

Dan Fesperman has written a series of crime thrillers, the best of them The Prisoner of Guantánamo (2007), which won the Dashiell Hammett Award. For The Double Game, he imagines Bill Cage, the 50-something son of a foreign service officer, a one-time journalist turned public-relations flack, who is drawn into a complicated game by retired CIA officers determined to prove that one of their own was a mole.

The agent in question, Edwin Lemaster, was once, under the code name “Headlight,” one of Angleton’s own and is now a celebrated writer of spy novels.

Cage gets to relive his eastern European youth in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. He meets up and joins forces with his first love, Litzi Strauss, now an archivist in Vienna. He discovers what his father, Warfield, was actually doing while posing as a diplomat. He has encounters, sometimes not so friendly, with characters named Lothar Heinemann, Boris Trefimov, Karel Vitova, and Václav Bruzer. And in the end, the evidence against Lemaster remains ambiguous.

Fesperman has a marvelous time combining allusions to his favorite espionage fiction with the writing of his own. Yes, with The Double Game set in the present, the Cold War seems a long time away, and the attempt to apply tradecraft to modern open societies can be ridiculous. And yes, Cage is an utter amateur who not only makes every possible mistake but fails to learn from them. Still, this twisty game of hide and seek through the present to understand the past makes a story well worth reading.

Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at LSU. His latest book, Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War, will be published in March 2013.