Dan Fesperman’s new espionage novel, The Cover Wife, could have been a soapy, simplistic experiment in dramatics. It follows CIA agent Claire Saylor, as she goes undercover as the wife of an academic in Hamburg, Germany, while a parallel plot line follows Mahmoud, a young Moroccan immigrant who’s being slowly sucked in by a radical group of men at his mosque. But Fesperman, a former journalist who covered both the Yugoslav civil wars and the Middle East in the wake of 9/11, roots Claire and Mahmoud’s stories firmly in reality. In this essay, he reveals why why an individual spy is far less powerful than you’d think, and why that makes their work all the more thrilling.
Behold the Super Spy, who knows all, anticipates all, and because of their operational autonomy, is almost always a step ahead of the competition. Need to Know? That’s a doctrine for chumps and desk jockeys.
Such is the misconception some readers have of CIA officers and others who work in the shadowy world of espionage, believing that spies step into their assignments in full knowledge of the stakes, the objective, the tasks their colleagues will be carrying out and so on.
Claire Saylor, my main CIA character in The Cover Wife, enviously wishes this were true. But, as just about anyone who’s worked in the spy business will tell you, it almost never is.
In a manuscript I’ve just completed, for example, here’s a bit of Claire’s thinking as she approaches an assignment for which she’s been told very little about what to expect. All she knows for sure is that she has been asked to show up for an appointed rendezvous with an unnamed source who will announce his presence with a designated code phrase:
“On its face, it was a simple chore with clear but limited instructions and open-ended possibilities. She was no stranger to work like that. At times, her job in Paris seemed to offer nothing but: Take this parcel and leave it there; Meet Man A and deliver his message to Woman B; Sit on that bench until 3 p.m., while noting every coming and going from the opposite doorway. And so on. Simple orders with complex possibilities.”
The archetype for the Super Spy, of course, is James Bond, although not even your most bedazzled reader seems to believe anymore that real spies live in his glitzy world of casinos, martinis and luxury cars, complete with dinner jacket and an exotic gun.
And, about those guns: There is no such thing as a standard issue weapon for a CIA officer, except for the ones who serve in war zones. Most spies travel unarmed. Not only is carrying a weapon illegal in most countries, it would be a giveaway that you were up to no good.
On the face of it, such limitations make the job seem less exciting. But for me—or, more to the point, for characters like Claire—it only adds to the challenge. She’s always trying to expand smaller roles into bigger ones. Withhold info about an upcoming task and she’ll try to find out more. Or, as I’ve described her: “Whenever an op confined her to the dark, she sought her own path toward the light. It kept the job interesting even as it tended to thwart professional advancement.”
It also helps when, as in The Cover Wife, her supervisor is willing to participate in the subversion, by assigning her additional duties which they both try to hide from their superiors. Layers upon layers.
I suppose this tendency of Claire’s is the spy novel’s equivalent of the detective novel trope of gumshoes who never play by the rules. And you certainly can’t let characters wander too far off the straight and narrow without risking implausibility. But when you’re valued for your ability to dig out forbidden knowledge, it’s not much of a leap to expect this inquisitiveness to exceed its limits. Although Claire, alas, will never enjoy the freedom of the Super Spy.