“The Devil’s Light,” Richard North Patterson’s ambitious novel of nuclear terrorism, opens with Osama bin Laden in a cave in western Pakistan, discussing with two followers a plan to explode a nuclear weapon above an American city on Sept. 11 of this year, the 10th anniversary of the original 9/11 attacks.
In the real, nonfictional world, bin Laden was killed by American forces at about the time this novel was reaching bookstores. Patterson and his publisher could be forgiven if they wondered if this otherwise welcome news might be bad news for his novel — writers and publishers think like that — but I suspect it will not hurt the book’s prospects and might even enhance them. Bin Laden’s death certainly put the once-elusive terrorist back in the news, and the novel presents an interesting portrait of him, not only as a mass murderer but as a visionary, even a kind of poet. Moreover, if bin Laden had in fact set in motion a massive 10th anniversary attack, it might well be as complex and bloodthirsty as the one pictured here, and it would almost certainly be going ahead despite his death. In that sense, we won’t know until Sept. 11 just how much fact there is in Patterson’s fiction.
The mastermind of the new attack is a murderous al-Qaeda strategist named Amer Al Zaroor, who sells bin Laden a plan to steal a nuclear weapon and use it to destroy an American city, perhaps New York or Washington. Al Zaroor makes contact with a Pakistani general who commands a military base where nuclear weapons are stored and who is sympathetic to al-Qaeda. He would willingly hand over a bomb, but he’s unwilling to die in the process. (“I have no use for seventy virgins in this life or the next,” he explains.) He warns that terrorists could not penetrate his base’s defenses. However, in the case of a military alert — presumably during hostilities between Pakistan and India — a bomb would be transported to another base for use, and that is when terrorists might snatch it. Al Zaroor cooks up a crisis — he has suicide planes fly into the Taj Mahal and the Indian parliament — steals the bomb in transit, and then faces the challenge of smuggling it out of Pakistan. All this unfolds in the first 40 pages. (No spoilers here!)
Soon, however, Al Zaroor changes his plan in ways I won’t reveal, except to say that it makes stopping his attack even more difficult. We realize that if nuclear holocaust is to be avoided, it will probably be thanks to the efforts of a dedicated CIA agent named Brooke Chandler. He’s 35, tall, athletic, handsome, rich and has ancestors going back to the American Revolution. He is, in short, a WASP superhero, but a pretty decent fellow when you get to know him. Much of the novel is devoted to alternating scenes in which Al Zaroor, amid many dangers, moves the stolen bomb across the Middle East while Chandler follows rumors and scraps of information that lead him ever closer to the terrorist, even as Sept. 11 draws near.
This is, above all, a thinking reader’s terrorism novel. Patterson has talked to the experts and visited the region, and he leads his readers deep into the complexities of Middle East sectarianism, politics and terrorism. He writes of the Shia, the Sunni, the Druze, the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah, and such relatively unknown militant groups as Lashkar-e-Taiba (the Army of the Pure). Patterson runs the risk of losing some readers in this factional swamp in order to give his novel the seriousness he thinks his subject demands. He spices his narrative with pithy comments that will amuse some readers and outrage others. He has bin Laden say that the United States almost destroyed al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001, and “only the stupidity of their adventure in Iraq revitalized our cause.” A CIA official says that bin Laden and his inner circle are “extremely rational — the exact opposite of the illiterate knuckle draggers who still dominate the Taliban.” His characters express scorn for Israeli militarism, respect for Hezbollah’s discipline and sympathy for the plight of Palestinian refugees.
For the most part, Patterson’s story is skillfully told, with fine descriptions of the landscapes of the Middle East, particularly Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where, amid Roman ruins — “massive temples to Jupiter, Venus, Mercury and Bacchus” — the novel reaches a suspenseful climax. His characters are nicely drawn, and Chandler’s love affair with an Israeli woman is particularly well handled. Now and then he lapses into saccharine sentences like “Abboud chuckled, his eyes merry” — but those are quirks that editors are supposed to spare us. Patterson can’t be faulted on the big issue, which is that someday, somehow, people who hate us are going to get their hands on a nuclear weapon and try to use it to incinerate us.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Post.
THE DEVIL’S LIGHT
by Richard North Patterson
Scribner. 342 pp. $26