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Gripping thriller set in Hamburg (and talking location with the author)

20th July 2021

The Cover Wife by Dan Fesperman, gripping thriller set in Hamburg (and first Paris).

Gripping thriller set in Hamburg

The Cover Wife is a work of fiction woven around real life events. The 9/11 bombers did, indeed, meet at the Al Quods Mosque in Hamburg to plan their journey to the training camps in Afghanistan and on to the United States (as they do in the book). They were a motley collection of young jihadists convinced that their form of (extreme) Islam was the way to martyrdom and everlasting glory.

The Cover Wife is the story of the observation of the mosque. And it is a quite complicated story involving deception, duplicity, and the passing of information on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis. The CIA and the FBI get in each other’s way – sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. And on occasion the local German police are also involved. No wonder it is seriously compromised.

The cover wife of the title is Claire Saylor, an at times maverick CIA officer working for an equally at times maverick boss, Paul Bridger. Claire and Paul have history from a shared assignment in Berlin a few years previously. Her ostensible mission is to be the ‘wife’ of a US academic who has some pretty outspoken views on interpretation of parts of the Quran – which make him a likely target for an islamist terrorist attack. The academic is publicising a new book and Claire, plus a whole bunch of other operatives, are there to protect him at a launch event in Hamburg. Paul has, though, also asked Claire to spend a couple of hours each evening checking out the happenings at the Al Quods Mosque. She does, and runs across FBI agent Ken Dolan on a similar mission… They become increasingly focussed on Mahmoud, a young guy who has recently joined the mosque. They see him as vulnerable (and turnable) as he has fallen for the estranged (and very Westernised) wife of one of the other mosque attendees.

The story proceeds to a convincing and bloody finale. With a wind up piece in 2000 as the 9/11 attacks unfold.

In TripFiction terms The Cover Wife is an excellent location based thriller. Hamburg comes through sound and clear from the largely immigrant area by the central station (where the Al Quods Mosque is situated on the first floor of an unprepossessing building), to the quieter reaches of the Alster lake, to the industrial suburbs. Hamburg is a city I know reasonably well, and I felt very much at home.

The Cover Wife is quite definitely recommended.

Tony for the TripFiction team

#TalkingLocationWith… Dan Fesperman: HAMBURG

When the weather cooperates — never a certainty when you’re so close to the North Sea — Hamburg can be one of the world’s most pleasant cities. It’s a trifle bland, as prosperous locales tend to be, and its citizens can be a bit aloof toward visitors. But its tree-lined beauty, its calm intelligence, and the ease and efficiency of its mass transit offer a comforting appeal, especially in the wake of last year’s upheaval of lockdown and pandemic.

Alas, those same welcoming attributes also made Hamburg an ideal spot for a few zealous young men to begin cooking up an international conspiracy back in 1999; namely, the terror plot that used four passenger jets as guided missiles in the 9/11 attacks. That, too, is now part of the city’s legacy, as the onetime home of the so-called “Hamburg Cell” of hijackers.

That’s why I chose Hamburg as the backdrop for most of my new spy novel, The Cover Wife, a book in which American and German spies perform a wary and sometimes clumsy dance as they try to keep tabs on the doings of those young fanatics in the autumn of 1999.

Gripping thriller set in Hamburg

Photo: hamburg.com

Unlike some of my earlier novels set in more turbulent places like Sarajevo, Guantanamo and Berlin, this setting is more of a backdrop than an active player in the events of the plot. Hamburg  tends to be that way. It is not a city that gets up in your face, or demands your attention. It prefers instead to leave you to your own devices. And on a sunny, temperate day, when sailboats and rowers colorfully navigate the picturesque urban lake, The Alster, that serves as the city’s centerpiece, Hamburg can make any sort of dark threat feel disarmingly distant. Maybe that’s one reason those plotting zealots fell so easily off the radar of those hard-working spies.

I first visited the city in the mid-1990s, while based in Berlin as a foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. I returned to refresh my memory while researching this book, an enjoyable stay in which I did many miles of walking and bicycling, a lot of them in the footsteps of those spies and hijackers. My characters never spent much time in the St. Pauli or Altona areas of the city, and, so, neither did I. But here are a few of the more notable spots which either figure directly into the action in The Cover Wife, or loom prominently in the background:

The Alster — On any nice day, this urban lake is where people stroll, go boating, or relax with a beer along the waterfront. You’ve got two choices of a destination, since the smaller Binnenalster (Inner Alster), the focus of Hamburg’s stylish Old Town, broadens to the north into the bigger expanse of the Aussenalster (Outer Alster). Shoreline neighborhoods have plenty of places to eat, drink and shop, plus beautiful parks and museums. The Planten un Blomen botanical garden, just southwest of the Outer Alster, is particularly nice.

Gripping thriller set in Hamburg


Site of the Al Quds Mosque — This former gathering place of the Hamburg Cell was its nerve center and place of worship. The mosque closed several years ago, but the unremarkable building that housed it remains at 103 Steindamm. It looks just as it used to, which may leave you wondering how such a bland storefront could have played such a dynamic role in history.

The Port — The economic heart of Hamburg, the port proved worthy of a visit even for a few of my characters when they had better things to do. Hafen City, where developers have replaced old wharves and workplaces with attractive apartment buildings, has become a showplace of the city’s vitality, but the more interesting part of the neighborhood is the nearby Speicherstadt, with its imposing rows of long, brick Neo-Gothic warehouses, nicely restored along narrow canals.

Marienstrasse 54 — An upstairs flat in this apartment building in the southern suburb of Harburg was the so-called House of the Followers, home to several members of the Hamburg Cell, including Mohammad Atta. It figures prominently in several scenes in The Cover Wife, which made it a mandatory stop for me. But it’s probably only worth a visit if you’re determined to see any and all 9/11 landmarks. If you do go, the most interesting thing about Harburg’s residential architecture is the prevalence of plaques which, with gentle understatement, commemorate the way the city rebuilt itself, building by building, after it was devastated by Allied bombing in World War II. A typical one will read, “Zerstört 1944, Aufgebaut 1955.”

Dan Fesperman

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Enter the 2021TripFiction 'Sense of Place' Creative Writing Competition!

A story in which the location plays as important a role as the rest of your words.

2,500 word maximum, 750 word minimum

Judges include Victoria Hislop and Rosanna Ley

First Prize of £1,000 / US$1,350

Prizes total £1,750 / US$2,362 

Winning entry published on TripFiction site and publicised on Social Media

Entries close 6th November 2021