When you’re a spy, regime change is tricky. Even positive shifts can make for treacherous times. Two novels uncover the messy, uncertain lives of intelligence operatives in times of tectonic political change: Allison Montclair’s The Unkept Woman explores English life after World War II, at the dawn of the Cold War, while Dan Fesperman’s Winter Work illuminates the turmoil surrounding German reunification as the Cold War was coming to a shaky close.
The Unkept Woman
A lighter riff on the espionage novel, Montclair’s The Unkept Woman is the fourth in a series about two women—Gwendolyn Bainbridge, an upper-class widow, and Iris Sparks, a former British spy—who run the Right Sort Marriage Bureau, a matchmaking service launched in the wake of WWII.
Witty and suspenseful, the novel brims with Noël Coward-esque banter. The primary mystery is how Helen Joblanska, an aspiring Right Sort client, ended up dead in Iris’ apartment. And why was a woman tailing Iris in the days before the murder? The events may or may not have something to do with the sudden reappearance and subsequent disappearance of Andrew Sutton, Iris’ married former lover and fellow spy, who had recently turned up on her doorstep looking for a place to hide out.
As the prime suspect in Helen’s murder, Iris is determined to find the truth, but she’s facing strong tail winds. The local authorities are openly hostile due to their resentment of her involvement in previous cases, and Gwen is unable to help Iris as her own freedom and future are hanging in the balance. She has been trying to recover custody of her son and her inheritance, but having once been labeled a “lunatic” and committed to an asylum by her family, it’s an uphill battle.
Montclair paints a compelling portrait of two intelligent, formidable women working against systems and circumstances that put them at a distinct disadvantage. They’ve grown used to having careers and being in charge of their own fates, often in the absence of men. But both Iris and Gwen are considered disreputable, and the social change they represent is seen by some to be a monstrous encroachment on the normal social order. As unruly women in an uncertain time, Iris and Gwen are as intriguing as the mystery they’re investigating.
★ Winter Work
Like The Unkept Woman, Dan Fesperman’s Winter Work savvily leverages the inherent messiness of the life of a spy. When Lothar Fischer, a colonel in the now-defunct East German foreign intelligence service (more commonly known as the Stasi), is found dead in the woods near his dacha, his right-hand man, Emil Grimm, is determined to find out what really happened. Some suspect suicide, as many other senior Stasi officials have made that choice in the face of potential prosecution now that the Berlin Wall has fallen, but Emil thinks that’s nonsense. To complicate matters, the surrounding neighborhood is thick with former spies, and there’s soon a scuffle over jurisdiction.
As a sympathetic Stasi officer, Emil provides a fascinating perspective for Western readers. In addition to the troubles of being an aging Cold Warrior, Emil also worries about his wife, who is seriously ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease. With the Stasi dismantled amid the general upheaval, Emil’s income and health care are uncertain, which makes his situation particularly precarious.
As Emil scrambles to make sense of what happened to Lothar while trying to secure his future, Fesperman effectively balances building the mystery with illustrating the broader historical context and personal stakes. The social dynamics in the story are handled brilliantly, with the lines between personal and political motivations appropriately nuanced throughout. There are a multitude of competing interests in Berlin, chiefly Russians trying to shut down the flow of information and Americans offering top dollar to informants. For Emil, who has long since lost his belief in the East German system and grown wary of surveillance in his own life, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is a shaky figure who can’t be relied upon to help displaced men like him in this new world order. With the Russian leader “too preoccupied with making the Americans fall in love with his new Perestroika,” some of Emil’s fellow officials are looking for hope in other figures. In a chillingly prophetic note, one of them is Vladimir Putin: “The KGB station chief in Dresden, that Putin fellow, is as outraged as we are,” they remark. The heavy toll of authoritarianism looms over the entire proceeding, making for a complex tale that will have readers rooting for a Stasi agent.