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  • Written by Dan Fesperman
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  • Written by Dan Fesperman
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On Sale: August 04, 2009
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27228-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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An unflinching thriller from Dan Fesperman that takes us deep into the White Rose resistance movement during World War II.
When Nat Turnbull’s mentor, Gordon Wolfe, is arrested for possession of a missing WWII secret service archive and then turns up dead in jail, Nat’s quiet academic life is suddenly thrown into tumult. The archive is a time bomb of sensitive material, but key documents are still missing, and the FBI dispatches Nat to track them down. Following a trail of cryptic clues, Nat's journeys to Germany, where he soon crosses paths with Berta, a gorgeous and mysterious student and Kurt Bauer, an arms billionaire with a dark past. As their tales intersect, long-buried exploits of deceit emerge, and each step becomes more dangerous than the last.



The biggest hazard of studying history,” Nat Turnbull once told his wife, “is that if you spend too much time looking backward, you’ll be facing the wrong way when the forces of the here and now roll forward to crush you.”

As if to prove the point, his wife filed for divorce the following week, catching Nat completely by surprise. Five years later he was again facing the wrong way, so to speak, when a pair of phone calls summoned him urgently back to the dangers of the present. He was three stories underground at the time, asleep at his desk in the stacks of the university library. An unlikely location, perhaps, for the beginning of an adventure in which lives would be lost, but Nat was trained to appreciate that sort of irony.

The first call arrived just as a dark dream of another era goose-stepped across his brain. His cell phone jolted him awake, squirming in his pocket like a frog. Opening his eyes to utter darkness, Nat realized he must have slept past closing hour. It wasn’t the first time. He kept a flashlight for these emergencies, but it seemed to have disappeared. No use groping for the lamp, either. Security would have cut the power by now. Library budgets weren’t what they used to be at Wightman University.

The phone twitched again as he fumbled in his pocket. He was addled, groggy, a miner regaining consciousness after a cave-in. What time was it? What day? What century? Mandatory question in his line of work. Nat was a history professor. Specialty: Modern Germany. At Wightman that covered everything from the Weimar Republic of 1919 onward, and while Nat was in love with the sweep and grandeur of the whole era, neither friend nor foe was under any illusion as to his true calling. He remained as thoroughly haunted by the long shadow of the Third Reich as those Hitler-centric folks on the History Channel. In Nat’s treasure hunts, X never marked the spot. A swastika did, or some pile of old bones. Dig at risk of contamination.

He snicked open the phone, and the blue glow offered a beacon of hope until he saw the incoming number. Gordon Wolfe, his onetime master and commander, calling at 1:04 a.m., meant Nat was about to be subjected to an angry tirade or a teary confessional, and either would likely be served in a marinade of French cognac and Kentucky bourbon. He answered with a vague sense of stage fright.


“No, it’s Viv. Gordon’s in jail. You have to get up here.”

“Jail? What’s happened?”

“They took him away. Him and some archives. They took everything.”

“Gordon’s archives? All of them? Where are you, Viv?”

“Blue Kettle Lake. Our summer place.”

The Adirondacks. Of course. That was where the old Minotaur always retreated when the going got tough, and lately the going had been unbearable.

“The police handcuffed him the moment we walked in the door. You’d have thought he was John Dillinger. They’re saying he stole it, that he stole everything, which is nuts.”

“Stole what, Viv? Slow down. Start at the beginning.”

By now the phone light had switched off. Nat, sole survivor of the European Research Collection, again sat in the darkness of carrel C-19 in the basement stacks of Hartsell Library. He had often boasted he could find his way out of here blindfolded. Tonight he might have to put up or shut up.

His nose could have told him the approximate location—musty leather bindings, chilled concrete, the chemical reek of spooled ?microfilm—a bouquet that probably explained why he had just been dreaming of a similar place across the Atlantic. Except there all the writing was in German and the records were haunted by so much industrialized horror that you never got comfy enough to nod off.

In his dream he had been visiting the place during wartime, a quarter century before he was born. He was descending a narrow stairway as bombs crashed overhead, and he was vaguely excited, as if on the verge of a huge discovery. Yet at each passing level the light dimmed, his dread deepened, and a grim realization took hold: The closer he got to his goal, the greater the risk that he would lose his way or be buried in rubble, forever irretrievable by family and friends.

Guilt having its say, no doubt. Work had consumed the better part of Nat’s last two decades, dating back to his undergraduate years, when a dynamic professor named Gordon Wolfe had infected him with a virulent strain of historical curiosity. The affliction had now outlasted the aforementioned marriage, a procession of careless affairs, and the upbringing of a daughter who had just finished her sophomore year at Wightman. This being a party-hearty Thursday following final exams, Karen was probably seated at this very moment with her friends around a noisy table, polishing off a celebratory pitcher of beer.

Nat had canceled a dinner date to come to the library. It seemed necessary at the time. But so far the only fruits of his labor were an unscheduled nap, and now he had learned that Gordon Wolfe was in jail in upstate New York, where the old man apparently would remain until Nat could talk Gordon’s wife, Vivian, down from the high ledge of hysteria. Judging from her voice, she had been perched there quite a while.

“It was some old files,” Viv said. “Gordon says they were planted. That’s all I could get out of him before they took him away. They bumped his head on the goddamn patrol car. We didn’t even have time to take off our coats. When we turned on the light there was a pile of boxes sitting there, right on the kitchen table. Then a bunch of FBI guys came in from the living room.”

“The FBI? Good Lord. What kind of files?”

“I don’t know. Something from the war. Gordon can tell you. I got the idea he’d seen them before, just never at our house.”

“Two boxes? Ten?”

“Four. They moved everything to the sunroom before I got a good look, and now I can’t even get in there. I’m a prisoner in my own house.”

“You see any labels? Any markings?”

“A few stickers. Ask Gordon. But first we’ve got to get him out. They haven’t set bail, but I can take care of that. I want you here for the arraignment. We can ride over together, tell the judge it’s all a lie.”

Unless it wasn’t. Frame-up or not, what in the hell was Gordon Wolfe doing at the age of eighty-four with a missing archive at his summer home in the hills? Especially if it was the archive, the one Gordon had forever mooned about to both students and colleagues in his less-guarded and more-imbibed moments. More than sixty years ago he had been one of the few wartime caretakers of that trove. Then, after the war ended, four boxes full of information had slipped through everyone’s fingers, disappearing somewhere between the Alps of Switzerland and the towers of midtown Manhattan.

Gordon had been looking for this lost treasure ever since, and during particularly acute outbreaks of gold fever he sounded like an old prospector around a campfire. He had even brought up the subject at his long-overdue retirement party, a melancholy event six years ago when everyone but Gordon had been at a loss for words, stifled by the awkward knowledge that Wightman was nudging him not so gently into the box marked “Emeritus.” What was it Gordon had said that day as he blustered on? Some bold proclamation while he waved his drink, his blocky head thrust forward like that of a reckless boxer, punch-drunk and asking for more. Now Nat remembered:

“Oh, it’s out there, all right. Nobody burned it. Nobody bombed it. But somebody took it, and I wish I knew who, ’cause it’s got secrets you can’t find anywhere else. Not a dud among ’em. Live ammunition. Pick it up and it might go off in your hands. Boom!

Whereupon he sloshed bourbon onto the tie of the assistant dean for students.

Gordon’s mother lode was a trove of wartime gleanings from an American OSS station in Bern, Switzerland, which had been a listening post in a zone of tense but genteel neutrality. Right on Hitler’s doorstep, as historians such as Nat liked to say. It was run by Allen Dulles, the genial, pipe-smoking Lothario who a few years later became one of the first chiefs of the CIA, making him the nation’s ranking Cold Warrior. The missing boxes were only a fraction of the voluminous files Dulles collected during the war, of course. And much of his other work had been well documented, most notably in accounts of the German double agent Fritz Kolbe, who smuggled secret documents out of the Nazi Foreign Ministry by taping them around his thigh.

Gordon ended up working for the OSS literally by accident. Dulles arrived in Switzerland by train only hours before Vichy France shut its borders in late ’41. Cut off from reinforcements, he cobbled together a staff from borrowed diplomats, marooned American bankers and ?students, disaffected expat Junkers, a Swiss financier’s wife who was a former Boston debutante—who, conveniently, also became his ?mistress—and American airmen whose bombers crash-landed in Switzerland.

Gordon was one of the downed airmen, selected by Dulles mostly because of his fluency in German. It saved him from spending the rest of the war in a Swiss internment camp, although by his own account he was little more than a clerk, translating speeches and making sure Dulles never ran out of paper clips. Gordon compensated for this lack of espionage glamour by telling hair-raising tales of his missions as a ball turret gunner in a Flying Fortress on bombing runs over Germany. To drive home the point, he wore a battered leather flight jacket and walked with a limp—the result, he said, of a flak burst and a bad parachute drop.

This image of dashing-flyboy-turned-spy-clerk-turned-scholar might have followed him to the grave if not for a bit of “gotcha” journalism that had appeared only a week ago in Wightman’s campus newspaper, the Daily Wildcat.

Gordon’s B-17, it turned out, hadn’t been shot down at all. It hadn’t even dropped a bomb during its final flight. It flew plenty of other dangerous missions, but Gordon was making his maiden voyage as a last-minute replacement. Somewhere between England and the target city of Regensburg the pilot got lost, ran low on fuel, circled into the Alps, and finally brought the plane to rest in a Swiss meadow, where the unscathed crewmen were immediately surrounded by milk maidens and lowing cattle. Gordon’s limp, the Wildcat said, was either the exaggerated by-product of a childhood illness—the very malady that kept him out of the infantry—or an outright affectation.

Although Gordon was retired, he was still a well-known figure around campus, not least for a series of free lectures he delivered every summer to the townsfolk, complete with colorful descriptions of his aerobatic derring-do. But there would be no speeches this summer, and a book contract that was to have been his scholarly swan song had already been canceled.

Now, if Viv was to be believed, you could add an arrest at the hand of federal agents to his roll of dishonor. And who knows, maybe the man was guilty. Because if he had finally tracked down the missing boxes, then Nat could well imagine him hoarding them, at least for a while. It was easy enough to guess how the old fellow would have justified it, by garrulously referring to his temporary possession as a “finder’s fee.”

“So can you come?” Viv was insistent.

Nat sighed. He wanted to tell her to call a lawyer. Then he could get a full night’s sleep and drive up tomorrow, if at all. Let the old bastard stew away in jail, especially after everything that had happened between them. But Viv headed him off at the pass.

“Gordon won’t let me call a lawyer. He said to get you instead. It was the last thing he said as they put him in the car. ‘Get Nat. He’ll know what to do.’?”

“Since when did Gordon make sense in this kind of situation, Viv?”

“I know. But for what it’s worth, he was sober. Mostly, anyway.”

“We haven’t spoken in years, you know. Unless you count those late-night calls he likes to make.”

“I know that, too. I’m sorry. Gordon’s sorry, if it makes any difference. And not just ’cause he’s in trouble. He’s said it a lot lately.”

Sure he had. But in spite of himself, Nat experienced a tug of old loyalties. Or maybe he was still just eager to please—student to teacher, apple in hand.

“Okay. I’ll come.”

“Thanks, Nat. I’ll never forget it. And I’m sure Gordon won’t.”

Yes, he would, probably within minutes. But Nat had endured that before. Besides, there were other motivations. If the boxes were what he suspected, he might get first crack at them.

“I’ll leave right away,” he said. “Don’t wait up.”

Viv hung up, and Nat found himself back in the dark, inhaling the stale, silent breath of all those books and ledgers. They, too, seemed to rest at night, the cells of a drowsing giant who might roll over at any moment and crush him with the weight of their lore. Nat believed there was more than just physical heft to these materials. They retained a spirit as well, some gusty breath from the souls of their creators. It wasn’t that he believed in ghosts. It was more a reflection of how thoroughly he let such materials inhabit his mind.

But more practical matters beckoned. He was already dreading the long drive. Six hours minimum, meaning he would have to stop for breakfast, maybe a nap. Good thing he’d nodded off here. With any luck he would make it in time for the arraignment, although he realized now that Viv hadn’t given him a time or place. He tapped the desktop like a blind man, groping for his things. Then the phone throbbed again. Viv with the logistics, no doubt.

From the Hardcover edition.
Dan Fesperman|Author Q&A

About Dan Fesperman

Dan Fesperman - The Arms Maker of Berlin

Photo © Lloyd Fox

Dan Fesperman’s travels as a writer have taken him to thirty countries and three war zones. Lie in the Dark won the Crime Writers’ Association of Britain’s John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for best first crime novel, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows won their Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for best thriller, and The Prisoner of Guantánamo won the Dashiell Hammett Award from the International Association of Crime Writers. He lives in Baltimore.

Author Q&A

Q: How did you get the idea for the plot of The Arms Maker of Berlin, which involves World War II spies, the Resistance movement, the nuclear arms race, and a historian trying to piece it all together?
It all goes back to the three years I lived in Berlin, from '93 to '96. I met so many people who to one degree or another shared the sentiment of the character Berta Heinkel when she said, "I wouldn't be German if I wasn't haunted." The city really is a landscape of ghosts, a bizarre theme park dedicated to everything that went terribly wrong in the 20th Century. Following the bloodbath of the First World War you had the upheaval and hyper-inflation of the Weimar years, and then Hitler and the Nazis with all their industrialized horrors, followed by the bleak spy-on-your neighbor culture of East Germany, sealed up behind the Berlin Wall. That would be enough to haunt just about anyone, especially in a society that is so given to discussing and dissecting its own problems to the point of distraction. There was a cartoon that ran in Der Spiegel while I was there that showed Germans unloading from a bus that had just arrived at the Pearly Gates of the afterlife. Signs pointed in two directions, one toward "Heaven" and the other toward "Discussion of Heaven," and of course all the Germans were heading for the discussion. So even while I was writing other novels set in the Balkans, Afghanistan, or the Middle East, I've always had an idea kicking around in the back of my head that someday I would write about the Germans and how they lived with all their troubled history, for better and for worse. And when I finally set out to do this, I knew I'd probably be more effective to tackle it from a more detached American point of view, and that's where the historian Nat Turnbull came into the picture.

Q: What research did you conduct in order to write the book? Did you travel to Germany or Switzerland?
First I spent about a month going through the declassified files of the U.S. wartime spy agency, the OSS, down at the National Archives in College Park, since so much of the mystery at the core of the plot has to do with something the OSS may or may not have kept tabs on. It was fascinating stuff, full of amazing details. Everything from agent reports to their expense accounts. And from time to time, just like Nat Turnbull, I came across yellow CIA notices explaining that certain materials had been removed and reclassified as official government secrets, more than sixty years after the fact. I also went back to some of my old stomping grounds in Berlin, where I was fortunate enough to be able to tour the former home of resistance figure Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and also pay a visit to the memorial site at Plotzensee Prison, both of which come into play in some of the book's key scenes. And, just as Nat Turnbull did, I spent several days following in the footsteps of US spymaster Allen Dulles in all his old Swiss haunts in the streets of Bern and Zurich. Not exactly hardship duty when compared to some of my previous research in places like Afghanistan, but the eating and lodging were certainly far superior, not to mention the beer!

Q: You capture the passion of a historian so vividly. Our intrepid protagonist, college history professor Nat Turnball, sits in the library in the beginning of the novel, "inhaling the stale, silent breath of all those books and ledgers. They, too, seemed to rest at night, the cells of a drowsing giant who might roll over at any moment and crush him with the weight of their lore." As a novelist who does such copious research for your novels, you are also a student of history. Have you developed the same belief as Nat—that history might crush us if we're not careful?
I suppose so, but more in the sense that anything we immerse ourselves in too deeply can end up crushing the life out of us. Although with history, I think that the people who try to remain oblivious to it actually run a greater danger of being crushed – or maybe "ambushed" would be the better word – than those who are aware of its lurking presence. Nat's fear comes from having seen firsthand history's power to shape and destroy present-day lives. But by being more aware of the dangers he's probably better equipped to leap to safety once the ambush occurs. With a burrower like Nat it's the forces of the here and now that pose a greater hazard, just as he tells his wife on the book's opening

Q: On the flip side, it's safe to say that Nat's historian's enthusiasm sometimes runs away with his better judgment—even, perhaps, with his humanity. When worried about his college age daughter, he worries that "posterity would deem him a no-show in this disaster." He is consumed by the thought of how this moment will play out and be looked back upon. Do you fault Nat for this thought, and with his overall obsession with history?
I really only fault Nat for succumbing, as many of us do, to the temptations of his deepest passions and obsessions. I suppose you could also fault him for not finding the thornier problems of his life – his failed marriage, his role as a father (at least at first) – sufficiently engaging to give them the attention they require. Maybe deep down he knows they'll require a lot more energy to deal with than some mystery he might come across in the cozy depths of an archive, where no one will confront him with a conflicting point of view.

Q: The book touches on the fact that so many eyewitnesses to the atrocities of the Nazis have died, and it's only a matter of time before only the written record will be able to tell us what occurred. How do you think Germany will change when that happens?
It is already changing, and in some ways for the better. Germany, if only because of its size and wealth, needed to assume a greater leadership role in Europe, but for years kept ducking its responsibility due to its own insecurities. One example: failing to help ward off the awful events in the former Yugoslavia in the early '90s, due to what the Nazis had done there fifty years earlier. While there were legitimate concerns on that aspect (the Serbs would have found it very difficult to trust them, to say the least), they certainly could have wielded a great deal more influence in bringing Croatia into line. But I actually had a neighbor in Berlin tell me with a straight face, "Oh no, we could never send any peacekeeping troops there, because we wouldn't be able to help ourselves from becoming a conquering army again." So I think these issues of guilt and complicity will always be in the backs of their minds, at least for another generation or so. Meaning that even as the Germans assume a role of greater leadership in the European Union, they'll be much more likely to exercise power with restraint. And that's a good thing.

Q: When we first meet the character Kurt Bauer, it is 2007 and he is a frail old man living in Berlin. Through flashback chapters that take place in 1943, we meet the young Kurt, son of a prominent manufacturer, who falls in love with a girl named Liesl Folkerts. It's not impossible to see how Kurt's intense love for Liesl led him to blind himself to the consequences of the actions he decided to take in 1943. Is that ambiguity part of what you were trying to explore with this novel?
Very much so. Kurt at age seventeen is pretty likeable, and at times even admirable, especially given what was going on around him. He's probably acting no worse that most of use would have under the same circumstances at that age, at least for a while. Even when his actions turn increasingly selfish, at some level he really is doing these things out of love, which, given his youth, isn't so hard to understand, or even excuse. As terrible as he becomes later in life, he is also a tragedy – one of those "weaker vessels" who fascinates Nat Turnbull so much as a historian.

Q: The domino effect of Kurt's actions reminds me of a line in Arms Mak er that says Nat and his mentor "shared a belief that scoundrels, not heroes, were the driving forces of history, and thus worthy of greater scrutiny." Do you agree with that assessment? Do you see it playing itself out in any present-day conflicts the world is witnessing?
I do tend to agree. Just look at the forces that most dramatically shaped history throughout the 20th century. The dolts whose nationalism and stubborness led to World War I, and then the horrors ushered in by Hitler and Stalin. And now you have Bin Laden and any number of butchers and extremists around the globe. Of course there are also the Ghandis and the Martin Luther Kings, trying and succeeding to bring about change non-violently. But they strike me as the noble exceptions that prove the rule. More often than not, scoundrels will set the tone, while the so-called good guys spend their energies and emotions reacting to all the assorted misdeeds.

Q: Nat and his daughter spar with each other by quoting lines from Emily Dickinson poems. You must be an Emily Dickinson fan. Why did you decide to include her poems in the book in this way?
I'm not, actually, although I do admire her ability to stir up a maximum of emotion with a minimum of words. In her better poems, her aim and precision are remarkable. But I did want to give Nat's daughter some sort of obsession similar in intensity to his own, and Dickinson seemed like pretty plausible territory for an undergraduate who was the child of a divorce. Plus, it gives Nat a chance to see a part of himself in her. And, in turn, it may well allow her to understand him a bit better.

Q: What's your next project? Is it sending you to any far-flung destinations for research?
It's a novel set in Dubai, probably one of the world's most surreal landscapes of wretched excess, as I found out when I visited for several weeks. A lot of people are already familiar with some of the more outlandish aspects -- a snowy ski slope inside a desert mall, a bizarre resort of manmade islands built to resemble a map of the world. What you also have is a strict local culture of modesty and piety living cheek to jowl with a far larger ex-pat population that loves to party hearty and shop 'til it drops. If something is excessive, or outsized, or overly ostentatious, then
you'll probably find it in Dubai, and it will be existing alongside a mosque where women dare not show their faces. And to build this fantasy dichotomy the government had to import a virtually enslaved underclass of construction workers and prostitutes, which in turn have provided a foothold for mafia organizations from Russia, India and Iran. In other words, it's the perfect place to set a suspense novel.

From the Hardcover edition.



“Compelling . . . nonstop action.”—The Baltimore Sun

"'Intelligent thriller' is almost an oxymoron . . . Which may be why novels like Dan Fesperman's are so rare . . . Fesperman just can't help drawing on his experience as a journalist covering foreign conflicts. And that experience puts the meat on the intricate bone structure of his thriller plots. You come away from a Fesperman novel not only abuzz with the exhilaration of the chase, but also aware that you've absorbed something of the complexity of the world's conflicts . . . Fesperman's characters in The Arms Maker of Berlin, particularly Bauer, are smartly imagined and subtly drawn."—San Francisco Chronicle
"A smoothly accelerating thriller . . . Fesperman is a skillful, unpretentious writer who deftly incorporates his extensive knowledge of the period." Boston Globe
"Well-crafted entertainment that also delivers complex truths about warfare and survival." Kirkus Reviews
"Fesperman convincingly evokes the fraying Reich in 1944 . . . Readers who like a bit of history with their thrills will be thoroughly satisfied." Publishers Weekly
"Fesperman writes well. His characters are believable, and the strong and credible plot will specially appeal to fans of World War II espionage fiction."Library Journal
"This one is definitely not your out-of-the-box spy caper, thus highly recommended . . . In the jaded world of the post-modern spy novel, there are no good guys or bad guys, no black or white—just a thousand shades of gray. This combination of anomie and espionage can get tiresome after awhile, but in Fesperman's newest novel, he spices things up."—Booklist (starred) 

  • The Arms Maker of Berlin by Dan Fesperman
  • June 01, 2010
  • Fiction - Thrillers
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9780307388728

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