Dan Fesperman’s The Double Game (2012) has a tantalizing conceit: it’s a spy novel about spy novels. An inveterate fan of the genre, William Cage is a lapsed journalist who created a minor stir early in his career in an interview with best-selling spy novelist Edwin Lemaster. Lemaster, a former CIA man who left the spy world to become a popular novelist, suggested during the interview that he once considered spying for the Soviets as a double agent. It’s a minor Cold War mystery: what did the famous Lemaster really do during his spy career? The flap caused by Cage’s article doesn’t last, but years later he gets drawn back into it by a mysterious handler, who uses Cage’s encyclopaedic knowledge of spy fiction to lure him into an investigation into Lemaster’s activities. This sends him back to European haunts from his childhood as the son of a diplomat, and puts him back into contact with an old flame from his teen years, an Austrian archivist named Litzi Strauss. An amateur in a world of ruthless professionals, Cage risks everything to uncover the truth and rekindle his career.
The Double Game is a nicely written and entertaining tale, but it may be too recursive for its own good; it’s written by and for a certain kind of spy fiction reader, which gives it kind of an insider’s feel. The fictional Lemaster, pitched as “the American LeCarré,” is a great character who ropes you into the mystery, but then spends most of the book offstage. The European travelogue plot is fun, full of close scrapes and paranoia, but the “closed case” nature of its background robs the narrative of urgency in the middle stretches, where the plot often feels too contrived to maneuver its unlikely hero to center stage. The threads do come together nicely for the finale, and the journey isn’t without its satisfying passages. But overall this one fell a bit short for me: an earnest but convoluted attempt to blur the boundaries between real and fictional spy worlds.