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Winter Work

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Spy thriller interwoven with historical fiction with the events occurring around the fall of the Berlin Wall. For those of us who lived through those events, Fesperman makes them come alive. It is based on a real CIA operation, and interspersed with the fictional characters are actual people from that era. ( Marcus Wolf, the notorious and fabled stasi spymaster, James Angleton, references to George H W Bush, and one of the CIA’s greatest traitors , Aldrich Ames , among others).
Meticulously researched and written, to my mind one of Fesperman’s best.

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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.

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Dan Fesperman's novel Winter Work is set during the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which sparked the reunification of East and West Germany about a year later. After World War II, East Germany was sealed behind the Iron Curtain and became a police state similar to the USSR. Loyalty to the state was everything, and neighbor spied upon neighbor; the atmosphere was one of constant fear and paranoia. As Fesperman writes, "Buy a book and someone always had to know which one, and then made a note of it. Make a phone call and you assumed it was overheard. Say something critical, even in passing or in jest, and perhaps someone would get the wrong idea. If you heard nothing about it later, was that good or was that worrisome?" The Stasi, East Germany's secret police, was responsible for the enforcement of the loyalty requirement. At one point, the organization is thought to have had about 90,000 employees and 170,000 informants (see Beyond the Book).

All this changed in little more than the blink of an eye. Although discontent had been building for decades, the dismantling of East Germany's system of government happened in just a few months. One result of the rapid collapse was the demise of the Stasi, which in turn initiated a mad scramble by the United States' CIA and the USSR's KGB to snap up as many of the organization's secret files as possible (the KGB so it could leverage operatives already in place, the CIA to expose them). Both offered payment and sometimes relocation to former Stasi officials in exchange for information.

The protagonist of Winter Work is one such Stasi officer. Fifty-seven-year-old spymaster Emil Grimm fears he'll face imprisonment for his past actions if he can't dig up some valuable material to give the CIA; he's hoping for amnesty and a new identity and life in the USA. He and a coworker, Lothar Fischer, have uncovered exactly what they need to ensure their security, but Lothar is murdered before they can establish contact with the CIA. The crime sets off a cat-and-mouse game as Emil seeks to identify the murderer, retrieve the hidden information and place it in the hands of the CIA before he shares Lothar's fate.

Claire Saylor (who has appeared in two of Fesperman's other novels, Safe Houses and The Cover Wife), is a CIA agent tasked with establishing contact with former Stasi personnel and evaluating their proffered information. After an encounter that doesn't go as planned, her superiors doubt her abilities but give her one last chance to succeed. As her storyline merges with Emil's, she bets her career that he's the "real-deal," and aids him despite her boss's objections.

There's a lot to love about this novel. First, the author paints a truly vivid portrait of time and place; as the title suggests, the action is set during the winter, and coupled with grim depictions of life in the former Soviet Bloc country, the atmosphere throughout is palpably cold and bleak. Beautifully descriptive phrases (e.g., "A doughnut glaze of ice already coated the shallow end of the lake") pepper the narrative, adding to the effect. Fesperman also captures the chaos that followed the wall's destruction, particularly from the standpoint of those who'd been heavily invested in East Germany's bureaucracy pre-fall.

The other highlight is the author's ability to create complex, multi-layered characters. Emil in particular is drawn with nuance, establishing a fine balance between the man who's lost a friend and the man who's a ruthless, calculating spymaster. The only disappointment I had with the book was how some of the minor characters were portrayed. Claire's CIA superiors are cartoonishly hostile, and the bad guys are absolute caricatures. The author is certainly capable of creating characters with depth, so I'm puzzled as to why these are so poorly drawn. Fortunately, their appearances are brief, and their flatness doesn't detract from my overall opinion of the novel.

Although the book isn't exactly a page-turner, the narrative pace is excellent and I found the story engaging from start to finish. The plot is complicated with enough twists and turns to keep readers guessing, but not so intricate that it becomes confusing.

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed Winter Work. Its focus on a pivotal moment in world history makes this a great selection for anyone interested in the time period, and its complex plot will appeal to readers who enjoy espionage thrillers.

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3.5 stars

If there's any period that must have been as flush with spy action as the WW2 era, it must be the fall of the Belin Wall. Dan Fesperman dives into this time head first, delivering a smart thriller that juggles Stasi spies trying to plot their next steps, a population elated to tear it all apart, Russians trying to salvage and Americans looking to benefit from the chaos.

Emil Grimm is probably a former Stasi operative. At this point he's not even sure if he'll get another paycheck. He's been hiding out at his dacha, working with a neighbor colleague to see how they can market what they know and leverage an escape. Emil's wife has ALS and he is hoping to find a safe haven for them. Grimm comes out as a good guy, but we know he can't be considering he's done for a living. Fesperman was a reporter in Berlin at the time, which adds verisimilitude to plot and location, but there's always something missing for me in his fiction. Everyone has their heads down and is focused on the job. Are there no doubts? No questions? It must have been terrifying and elating to go from an authoritarian world into one that was a little more than a rumor for East Germans.

Thanks to Knopf and Netgalley for digital access to this title in exchange for an honest review.

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The end of the Cold War has e erroneous a bit confused on how to handle a murder of a former or current East German Stassi member. As the investigation starts by men who really don’t know there roll anymore the spies get involved.

An excellent Cold War spy novel. Plotted and developed carefully. Highly recommended.

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Published by Knopf on July 12, 2022

Most of spy fiction’s best novels are set in the Cold War. Winter Work comes at the end of that war. The Berlin Wall has been down for about four months. East Germany is transitioning to unification. The Stasi offices are closed; files that were not burned are being ransacked or sold.

Emil Grimm is a former Stasi officer who is now unemployed. He had a desk job, running the Stasi operation to spy on NATO. He worries that the unified Germany will prosecute him for treason, as if he had some duty to be loyal to West Germany when he was a citizen of East Germany. His more urgent concern is how to pay for his wife’s medical treatment until reunification brings her into (West) Germany’s system of free healthcare. Emil’s wife is dying of a progressive disease and can no longer move.

Emil has a dacha outside Berlin and an apartment in the city, closer to his shuttered headquarters. One of his neighbors, Lothar Fischer, is also a Stasi officer. On his morning walk, Emil discovers Lothar’s body. The Stasi are already there, supposedly investigating, but they are soon chased away by the local police, who feel empowered to do their jobs now that the Stasi are no longer a thing.

Lothar apparently shot himself. Emil knows he was murdered. Emil also knows that Lothar was up to something. Emil knows that because he was up to something with Lothar.

On the novel’s other front, the CIA’s DDO is trying to get in bed with a Russian who wants to sell the identities of all the former Stasi agents. Claire Saylor (a key characters in The Cover Wife) has been contacting former Stasi agents to see if they have information they want to sell. She’s going behind her boss’ back to get off-the-books help from Clark Baucom, a retired CIA agent. The DDO assigns another agent to keep her under control. That agent also has a central role in The Cover Wife, making Winter Work the origin story of their teamwork.

Claire and her partner take an interest in Emil. That interest leads to conflict with the Russian and to escalating tension as the story nears its climax. The action is never over-the-top — this isn’t a tough guy novel — but the risks faced by the novel’s central characters create fear that the reader shares.

Dan Fesperman is a reliable spy novelist. Winter Work is rooted in Cold War history, as Fesperman explains in his acknowledgements. I don’t usually read acknowledgements, but Fesperman’s explanation of CIA and Russian activities soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall adds interest to the story.

Given the horrible reputation of the Stasi, it’s intriguing that Fesperman makes Emil a sympathetic figure. As Claire notes, Emil is “an adversary who has already been defeated.” He doesn’t seem to deserve further punishment, particularly the kind of punishment that will be awaiting him if he’s caught. Emil’s disabled wife encouraged him to form a sexual bond with her caretaker. Emil’s devotion to both of them, the fact that he didn’t actually order anyone’s death as a Stasi agent, and his remorse for being on the wrong side of history make it possible for the reader to hope he survives. In the tradition of strong spy novels, Winter Work illustrates how fuzzy the line between good guys and bad guys can become in the shadowy world of espionage.


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On a walk in the woods not far from Berlin
Emil Grimm, a Stasi colonel, finds his colleague , Lothar dead from a gunshot wound.

Lothar’s suspicious death threatens to upend Emil’s and Lothar’s plan to offer valuable East German intelligence to the West . Nevertheless, Emil knows that with the Berlin Wall gone , he is likely to be prosecuted for his Stasi work and decides to follow through with his plan.

Consequently he carefully approaches the CIA and offers secret files in exchange for new lives in the West for himself , his seriously ill wife, and his lover . Along the way, he meets Claire Saylor, a CIA officer, who empathizes with Emil and agrees to help him.
Unfortunately for them, a dangerous Russian operative also wants these files and won’t hesitate to kill anyone who gets in his way.

Fesperman’s focused , realistic plot captures one’s attention with authentic characters, descriptive details about life in East Germany and human turmoil . Winter Work is a first rate spy novel .

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With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East German intelligence agency was thrown into turmoil. The CIA saw this as an opportunity to contact former Stasi members and offer rewards for their cooperation. Two high ranking members of the HVA, the Stasi’s directorate for foreign intelligence, form a plan to save themselves from prosecution. On a morning walk, Emil Grimm finds authorities surrounding the body of Lothar, his friend and partner in the plan. Lothar’s death appears to be a suicide but Emil knows he was murdered. Now he has to find a way to make the plan work by himself. In Berlin Claire Saylor is given the assignment to meet with a former Stasi agent. That agent was Lothar. In his place three Russian agents arrive to confront Claire. Emil observed the confrontation from a distance and decided on an approach to Claire that would trigger his plan.

Emil lives with his wife Bettina in the forests outside of Berlin. She is in the late stages of ALS. Karola, her caretaker, has become Emil’s lover with Bettina’s consent. His aim is to secure a safe haven for the three of them by providing information on his fellow agents and their contacts. With the Russians hunting for the information, he must move quickly. Claire has secretly called on a retired CIA agent for advice and support. She has been assigned a partner from Langley who has final say on their actions. He appears to be friends with her boss and she doesn’t know if she can truly trust him.

the reunification of East and West Germany was celebrated with the end of the Stasi and their control of East Germany. It was a time of uncertainty as the Russians and Americans both sought an advantage. Dan Fesperman’s Winter Work is a spy story that reveals that competitive environment and the dangers involved. It is filled with betrayals and tension that puts the reader in the middle of that historic event. I would like to thank NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday for providing this book for my review.

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espionage, cold-war-era, spies, Germany, relationships, law-enforcement, thriller, suspense****

Set in the espionage chaos following the fall of the Berlin Wall, this is a very interesting look into reality based fiction from the points of view of two different agencies/agents. This conflict id further complicated by the medical status of one wife. Suspense, plot twists, and more as is to be expected from this celebrated author.
I requested and received a free e-book copy from Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Knopf via NetGalley. Thank you

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The eleven months between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the reunification of Germany in October 1990 must have been a strange time. Strange is probably an understatement. For decades, Berlin had been one of the foci of the Cold War. It was a place where East Germans had tried to escape to the West. Spies and police from both the West and the Soviet sphere of influence battled covertly throughout the divided city. But then, the wall came down and everything changed. There was suddenly space to speak freely and renegotiate old alliances. Dan Fesperman’s Winter Work takes place in that space, among people who were used to following the old rules but now find themselves scrambling for safe harbor before someone decides that they know too much.

Winter Work centers on two characters. Emil Grimm is a former high-ranking officer of the Stasi, a feared organization that recruited an estimated 16% of the East German population as informants (figure given by one of the characters in the book). Our other protagonist, Claire Saylor, works for the CIA. Under the old rules, the two would be enemies. With the wall down and secrets going at a premium, there’s a chance that Emil and Claire could become allies.

The novel opens with a disturbing interruption to Emil’s daily walk. Not far from his house in the exclusive woods north of Berlin, Emil finds a group of special police investigating the scene of an apparent suicide. The dead man is Emil’s old comrade from the Stasi, Lothar. Because the man in charge of the special police on the scene is an old semi-enemy of Emil’s, Emil has to watch his words carefully when he talks to Krauss. For example, he refrains from pointing out to Krauss that the gun is being held in his Lothar’s off-hand. Emil only really managed to get out of the uncomfortable situation when a detective with the Volkspolzei turns up to officially investigate the death. (Krauss’s people only do unofficial investigations. Mostly they make things disappear). Meanwhile, Claire is trying to find a way to get back out into the field, after being roped into a CIA operation that amounts to cold-calling everyone in their East German Rolodex in order to buy secrets. When her boss offers her a chance to meet with someone who says he has something to sell, Claire leaps at the chance.

We learn that Emil and Lothar were planning to sell some of the secrets they’ve collected from the Stasi, in exchange for money and a safe place in the West. With Lothar dead, Emil has to take the lead, even though he’s always worked desk jobs for the Stasi. He uses everything he remembers from training field agents to sneak around the upheaval in Berlin after stepping into Lothar’s shoes. First, he attempts to meet with the CIA agent (Claire) Lother arranged to meet, only for that meeting to go bad when Soviet thugs blunder in with threats of violence.

All of this happens in the first chapters of Winter Work and things never really slow down as Emil and Claire try to work their schemes. The only places where the plot slows down (as if for a breather) offer backstory for the protagonists. We learn about Emil’s wife, who has ALS, and the more-than-friend who takes care of both of them. We learn about Claire’s frustrations with superior officers who won’t let her follow her own initiative. And on top of the main plot and the backstory, we get plenty of lessons in the free-for-all fighting between the CIA, the Soviets (who don’t seem to realize that their regime is going to fall pretty soon), and East Germans over scraps of information. Oh, and real-life super-spy Markus Wolf has a not-insignificant role in this book. It’s a lot.

Winter Work is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in a while. Although the plot races along, character development is never sacrificed. The stakes remain high and Fesperman does outstanding work at recreating the tense and wild atmosphere of Berlin during the winter of 1989-1990. I highly recommend this book to fans of the genre who like their thrillers based in real history.

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Another richly exciting read from a true master of the spy novel, Dan Fesperman's NIGHT WORK is balanced on that treacherous instant when all the rules seem to be changing and no one can be trusted. Superbly researched and peopled by wonderfully crafted characters, this novel delivers on every level. Many thanks to Knopf and to Netgalley for this first-class novel of suspense, history and intrigue.

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Excellent spy thriller set in Berlin just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Weaves in real and fictional characters and employs actual historical events as part of the plot. The author lived in Germany for many years and this enables him to provide excellent locational detail, which greatly adds to the story.

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Thanks to the publisher, the author and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this book.

I count on Dan Fesperman to keep me entertained with the kind of cold war spy novels I miss and always look forward to his newest. His background and writing skills make him one of the best spy novel writers writing today.

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