Woodrow Cain is a fugitive from disappointment in a small North Carolina town. “Wife gone, daughter abandoned. He’d forsaken all he held dear for a fresh start, only to be greeted by symptoms of mass hysteria.” Because Cain, a senior detective back home, has arrived for a job as a homicide detective in New York City in February 1942. The French ocean liner S.S. Normandie has just burned and sunk in the Hudson River off Manhattan’s West Side. And everyone is convinced that Nazi saboteurs have done the deed. Thus opens Dan Fesperman’s endlessly intriguing novel of suspense, The Letter Writer.
A mystery within a mystery
Detective Sergeant Cain is nominally the protagonist of this tale. But the mysterious “letter writer” of the title, Maximilian Danziger, also tells the story from his perspective. Chapters alternate between the two accounts, Cain’s in the third person, Danziger’s in the first. The two men form an awkward partnership investigating the murder of a man whose body washes up in the Hudson. Danziger identifies the man. And he hints the murder has something to do with Nazi saboteurs but is reluctant to share the information. So, now Cain confronts a mystery within a mystery.
The Letter Writer by Dan Fesperman (2016) 386 pages ★★★★★
A reliable but reluctant narrator
Max Danziger is, in fact, a letter writer. He earns a modest income on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on “the translation and writing of other people’s letters . . . [in] four different tongues—German, Russian, Yiddish, and Italian.” But Danziger isn’t really his name. The man harbors a dark secret he is terrified of revealing. When he arrives at the Fourteenth Precinct to introduce himself to Sergeant Cain, he wears tattered old clothing and dark stubble on his cheeks and chin. Cain’s new colleagues think him a bum. But he is nothing of the sort, as we will soon discover. In fact, he is one of the most engaging characters to surface in all the detective fiction I’ve encountered in recent years.
A generous helping of believable characters
Along the way as the story proceeds, we encounter several other people who linger in memory. Cain’s inquisitive twelve-year-old daughter, Olivia. His wealthy father-in-law, Harris Euston, a partner in a patrician law firm on Wall Street. The police commissioner, Lewis J. Valentine. Danziger’s best friend and his bold, unconventional daughter, Beryl, Cain’s love interest. A couple of Nazi saboteurs. And a passel of historic figures in the New York Mob, Meyer Lansky, Albert Anastasia, and Joseph “Socks” Lanza, as well as Manhattan’s crusading district attorney, Frank Hogan.
The Letter Writer is a tale of Nazi saboteurs, the Mafia, and crooked cops. As the plot unfolds and Cain gradually attains purchase on the truth about the murdered man, he and Danziger find themselves in increasing peril. Fesperman writes exceptionally well, and his skill at plotting and character development is unexcelled. The novel is engrossing from start to finish.
About the author
Dan Fesperman (1955-) is the author of thirteen novels of intrigue and suspense. He is a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Wikipedia notes, “The plots were inspired by the author’s own international assignments in Germany, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East.”
The bio at the author’s website adds: “Dan Fesperman first began writing about dangerous and mysterious people and places as a journalist, a newspaper career that culminated in his years as a foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. Reporting from Europe and the Middle East, he covered three wars while also finding the time to write his first three novels. He then quit the newspaper biz to write fiction fulltime, and now travels on his own dime.”
“Fesperman is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is married to Baltimore Sun journalist Liz Bowie.” They live in Baltimore. They’re the parents of two adult children.
For more reading
I’ve also reviewed the author’s spy novel, Winter Work (Intrigue in East Germany after the Wall came down).
You might also enjoy my posts:
- Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here
- The 10 best novels about World War II
- The 15 best espionage novels
- The best spy novelists writing today
If you read spy thrillers, consider dipping into the work of these other excellent authors. Their books also deal with the impact of World War II.
- Joseph Kanon’s spy thrillers are superb
- The evocative Night Soldiers series from Alan Furst
- Top-notch spy novels from Alex Gerlis
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