Safe Houses unfolds in two timelines, Europe, mostly Berlin, in 1979 and the United States, mostly Poston, Maryland, in 2014. In Berlin, Helen Abell, employed by the CIA, has been assigned to manage Berlin Station’s safe houses, a task beneath her pay grade but given to her because of her Chief of Station’s distaste of women in the field. To make her task more interesting, she’s instituted new procedures and begun random spot checks. During one of these spot checks, she overhears, and records, a cryptic conversation about the pond, the bay, and extermination if necessary. That night, her lover, the older agent Clark Baucom, advises her to return to the safe house immediately and destroy the tape. Instead of completing her task, she hears another exchange–”Robert” raping one of his agents–which she had also recorded. Determined to get justice for the woman, she finds herself pitted against powerful forces who will do anything to silence her.
Thirty-five years later, Helen Shoat and her husband Tarrant are killed by their son, Willard. Their daughter, Anna, wants to understand why her brother would commit so evil a deed, and she hires Henry Mattick, a former Congressional staffer with investigative expertise who happens to be staying in Poston between jobs. As Anna and Henry dig into Helen’s past, Anna learns how little she knew about her mother, and how much her mother’s past might be a threat to her now. Even worse, she is not sure if she can really trust Henry, who may have his own agenda.
Safe Houses is an enjoyable and gripping espionage thriller, with particular interest due to its description of the discrimination and harassment faced by women in the CIA during the late 1970s. I enjoyed the details about Grombach’s Pond and his dream of a privately-funded intelligence agency as a warning for current readers. The book goes into great details countersurveillance strategies, and those, too were revealing, though I’d like to have seen more of other types of tradecraft as well.
The sections taking place in Berlin/Europe are solid and it’s hard not to respect Helen’s desire to get justice for women she barely knows, even when she acts rashly (and I wanted to shake her by the shoulder). The 2014 timeline was as interesting but more confusing, particularly around Henry and his motives. Also, the ending seemed a little too contrived, while the wrap-up, three characters around a table summarizing what happened, I thought could have been done in a more interesting fashion.
Still, I quite enjoyed reading Safe Houses. The writing style appealed to me, I was surprised enough to stay interested, and I especially liked that a spy thriller was told from a realistic female point of view.