A Spy Thriller That Mixes Fact and Fiction to Harrowing Effect

By Dan Fesperman

Spy thrillers have always had a complex relationship to history. Even the most escapist fantasies rely on familiar backgrounds like World War II or the Cold War to supply context and credibility, raise the stakes and, most important, provide the villains. Yet, being popular fictions — at least that’s the hope — spy stories naturally push against fact as well, rewriting history, whether as wish fulfillment or what-if, worst-case scenario. In “The Cover Wife,” Dan Fesperman charts a different, braver course, working his fiction seamlessly into the facts, writing his characters into the past and weaving his story into the warp of history’s nightmares. The result is a sharp, smart novel that hits fast and hard, its reverberations echoing after the last page is turned.

Claire Saylor is a C.I.A. agent stationed in Paris, which is not too bad, considering she is under a shadow owing to professional and personal transgressions during an op gone wrong in Berlin. She is summoned to a private rendezvous with none other than Paul Bridger, the kind of “essentially unknowable” mystery man who keeps a place overlooking the Bois de Boulogne but also heads off for annual solo trips to the remote American West. In other words, he’s irresistible, and the very partner with whom Claire was entangled back in Berlin. This time, Bridger has a weird one up his sleeve; Claire will be attending an academic conference in Hamburg, posing as the wife of an obscure American scholar of Arabic and Aramaic, who is about to be thrust into the limelight, and perhaps the cross hairs, with his scandalous reading of the Quran.

The scheme seems ridiculous to Claire: a book tour, arranged by a C.I.A.-backed foundation, using the poor prof as bait in an attempt to draw out possible terrorists. To muddy matters further, Bridger has a second assignment for Claire, this one so secret even her colleagues can’t know: to check out the young Islamic extremists gathering at a Hamburg mosque. Toss in a dastardly C.I.A. higher-up looking for redemption, an F.B.I. agent spying, essentially, on the C.I.A., a couple of other characters with double duties of their own and, oh, yeah, the actual German security service, and the pot is ready to boil.

There are some missteps along the way. The writing is sometimes less than fresh (Paul’s blue-green eyes invite you to “swim straight through to his soul”) and characters with dramatically important secrets seem to think undercover, even when the narration is deep in their minds. Are they dissembling even to themselves? Or just conveniently staying in character for the reader’s sake?

But these quibbles matter little as the story picks up speed, and Fesperman plays to his strengths, fashioning gripping plotlines out of his deep knowledge of history and politics, setting and culture, sketching in C.I.A. operatives, Muslim extremists and F.B.I. agents with equal credibility. I was particularly taken with how he manages to shift the tone of the narrative as momentum builds. Early scenes seem ripe for romantic comedy — secret agents with a secret romance reconnecting; a nerdy, married professor who is thrilled to share his bedroom with a charming agent disguised in dreary Midwestern clothes she’d never wear at Paris station — or even farce: The professor’s blasphemous discovery — one that made actual headlines back in 2004 — is that the “virgins” promised by the Quran to Jihadist martyrs might more accurately be a mistranslation of “raisins.” But as violence erupts and the truth unravels, we find ourselves in a thriller, one that is all the more chilling for running right into fact, and then diving straight into the darkest days of our own recent past. And here the author uncovers a deeper truth, about human limitations and the consequences of systemic failure. In the end, “The Cover Wife” lands like a punch in the heart, or an arrow finding its mark. Or a stolen plane flying into a tower on a clear blue morning.

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