About 40 years ago, a young advertising copywriter named Dick Wolf set out to write screenplays. He had three movies produced, then shifted to television, where he wrote for “Hill Street Blues” and “Miami Vice,” among other shows. In 1990, he created a police drama called “Law & Order,” which proceeded to run for 20 years, spawn numerous spinoffs, win countless prizes and earn him a fortune estimated at $250 million. He makes his home these days in Montecito, Calif., which is, as the saying goes, where God would live if he had the money.
Now, at 66, Wolf is publishing his first novel, and you can be sure that all across America, struggling novelists will devoutly hope and pray that this interloping TV tycoon falls on his face. No such luck. Wolf’s “The Intercept,” wherein al-Qaeda attempts another major attack on New York, is a smart, suspenseful, highly professional piece of work that should rank with the best of this year’s thrillers.
In an early scene, Osama bin Laden, not long before his death, is plotting a new assault on the United States. He tells his lieutenants that he wants “a strike that will break the soul of the Western demon.” Then it’s July 1, 2011, and we’re aboard a Swedish airliner headed for the United States. A young Muslim, armed with a knife and a fake bomb, tries to force his way into the cockpit but is overpowered by five passengers and a member of the flight crew. Among those who interrogate the hijacker is Detective Jeremy Fisk of the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division; he’s Wolf’s hero for this novel and a projected series.
As news of the failed hijacking reaches the nation, the five passengers and the flight attendant — The Six, they are soon dubbed — are hailed as heroes who saved hundreds of lives by stopping the terrorist from crashing the airliner in Manhattan, his admitted target. But Fisk is not so sure. He thinks the man is not very smart, had little chance of seizing control of the plane and might be a diversion from a more serious assault planned by al-Qaeda.
The immediate need is to find another suspect, supposedly a Saudi art dealer, who was on the plane. As this search develops, “The Intercept” becomes a first-rate police procedural. Wolf clearly has access to senior police officials, and he provides state-of-the art detail about how federal and local police would seek one man in a city of 8 million. They have pictures of the man, and their search for him is supported by hundreds of surveillance cameras poised around the city and computers that can scan for a particular face. Other computers monitor key words — like “bomb” or “explode” — spoken in Arabic on cellphones.
Wolf is good with characters, too. Fisk is a smart, tough detective who’s also independently wealthy, has a swanky two-bedroom apartment on Sutton Place and is conveniently unmarried. My heart sank when he met cute with a sexy young detective who joined him on the case. But meeting cute is a hallowed pop-culture tradition, and the relationship soon becomes more interesting. The scene when they consummate their flirtation is quite nicely done. He’s equally good with a triangle that arises among The Six, as two women compete for the favors of a handsome young Swede. Wolf has a sophisticated understanding of the games grown-ups play, even amid terrorist attacks.
He’s also good on the terrorists themselves. We meet four who are part of an intricate Fourth of July plot to inflict spectacular damage at a dedication ceremony at Ground Zero. The terrorists’ plan is a bit fanciful, but its telling is fascinating, and we are swept along. Wolf’s terrorists are not monsters or madmen but real people whose religious beliefs make them eager to die a martyr’s death. In our fiction, of course, the terrorists tend to lose, but Wolf raises disturbing questions about just how, in the real world, you win wars, at home or abroad, against people who aren’t afraid to die.
Wolf’s tale gallops to an exciting, disturbing conclusion. The storytelling skills he brought to our television screens prove quite transferable to the printed page, which is not to say “The Intercept” couldn’t become a first-rate movie. It probably will.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Washington Post.