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'Safe Houses' Explores The Past And The Present Of The Cold War


If anyone is feeling nostalgic for the days of the Cold War, we have a book for you. Actually this is a spy story set in the time when the Cold War was winding down. It bounces back and forth between then and now, between a young woman in our time and her cold warrior mother, one of the few women working in the CIA. Dan Fesperman wrote the book. It's called "Safe House." He's on a book tour. He joins us from KJZZ in Tempe, AZ. Thank you so much for doing this.

DAN FESPERMAN: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So Dan Fesperman explain this title, "Safe Houses."

FESPERMAN: Yes. The book is about places that are supposed to be safe that really aren't. And a safe house, in spy parlance, is where a case officer often goes to meet his or her agents in the field. And it's usually the agents that are most vulnerable. So it's nice for them to have places like this.

WERTHEIMER: But one of the things you make clear in the book is that there's really no such thing as a safe house, especially for a woman.

FESPERMAN: True - very vulnerable. And if you think of women as being particularly vulnerable now, sort of in the wake of the #MeToo movement, then even more so. And there was very little recourse if something happened to you. If you were trying to get relief for that inside a big patriarchal agency, like the CIA. So tough times as Helen, who is our main character, in those days finds out.

WERTHEIMER: Well, looking back at the world where Helen, your heroine, lived and worked. The women who are working for the CIA in Europe are mostly doing clerical work. They're not allowed to take part in anything exciting or dangerous, except, of course, they must put up with their male colleagues, who are generally, not especially exciting, but certainly could be dangerous to these women. But as women will, in your book, these women banded together and made their own way. How did you get to know the women of the Cold War?

FESPERMAN: I found a lot of great documents. First off, I started by talking to some women who had worked for the CIA. But the best trove of information I found out there was declassified documents with a wonderful panel discussion between women of this era, who had worked for the CIA. And they were talking about how tough it was to get into the field. And one woman, and I milked this shamelessly for the book, she basically - when she was talking to her station chief, she thought she was going into the field. And he set her straight on that. And said oh no, I can't put you into the field. I can't put women out there because they'll get pregnant. And so...

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter). Not that they will get hurt.

FESPERMAN: ...Exactly. So she told him lying on the spot very boldly knowing that he wouldn't have the guts to check it out. She says oh, well, I've been fixed?

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter)

FESPERMAN: And he says fixed? And sort of looked ashen, and she said oh, yeah, so that won't be a problem. So she had proceeded to remove the one hurdle he put up, and she actually got into the field. But it was rare in those days for women to make it into the field as operatives.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now the violence from that time is still bubbling up in some of the characters.


WERTHEIMER: And it bubbles up again when some of these guys - these battle days come back. You draw your daughter heroine, Anna, who is the modern half of this plot. And she actually gets sucked into it, and she picks up kind of where her mother left off.

FESPERMAN: Yes. And she goes into this not really knowing that her mother had even been in that type of work. So for her, this is a real revelation. She's learning as much about her mother's past as she is about why her mother may have died and what may have led to that. So in the modern portion, you have pretty much a murder mystery. And the Cold War portion, you have an espionage novel. So it's Anna kind of trying to retrace her mother's steps.

WERTHEIMER: Now, did you think when you'd started plotting out this book that people in this country are nostalgic about the Cold War? Do you think that the possibility of nuclear war and mushroom clouds and fallout - is that something we might in some warped way miss?

FESPERMAN: I don't know if we miss the Doomsday Clock and being close to a nuclear war. But I think there is a certain fascination and certain nostalgia for having an enemy that we could understand reasonably well. Whatever you thought about the Soviets and the U.S. and that Cold War fight, there was this weird Gentlemen's Agreement, for instance, in Europe that - OK, you don't kill any of our people, and we won't kill any of yours. Now all of the local agents, the Germans, the Czechs, the Hungarians all of those poor people caught in the middle, they were the fair game. But that was the kind of war that I think it had clear lines. It didn't have any hot war casualties, all of the casualties were locals and foreigners. And these weren't people that were going around blowing up airplanes and things like that. So I think there is some nostalgia for that type of an enemy.

WERTHEIMER: All sort of under control.


WERTHEIMER: Dan Fesperman's new book is called "Safe Houses." Thank you very much for talking to us.

FESPERMAN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.