The Faceless Foe

Reviewed by Sarah Weinman
Sunday, December 24, 2006


A Novel

By Robert Wilson

Harcourt. 453 pp. $25

Modern terrorism is uppermost in the minds of those who populate Robert Wilson's new novel, but the engines driving The Hidden Assassins through to its satisfying, nuanced finish are old human emotions: greed, obsession, love.

Overseeing the detective squad in Seville, Spain, Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón is no stranger to personal and professional calamities, be they ruined relationships, searing media scrutiny or high-profile cases that turn out badly. Falcón's frustrating run seems certain to continue with the discovery of a faceless, handless corpse in a Dumpster. All clues to the man's identity have been obliterated, but before Falcón can solve that mystery, his attention is diverted by an explosion in the basement of an apartment building that kills dozens. When the rubble of tangled bodies and debris reveals a clandestine mosque, echoes of the 2004 bombing in Madrid become deafeningly loud. Rumors swirl that the mosque is a breeding ground for an Islamist sleeper cell and that the unidentified man may have been involved in the bombing.

Wilson takes his time setting up a complex investigation that draws Falcón through back alleyways of secret government deals, border irregularities and illicit connections. By eschewing frenetic suspense for painstaking groundwork, he allows the reader enough room to breathe and, most important, to care about main and supporting players such as a judge fighting for his political life, a crusading reporter with shifting loyalties and police officers at times overmatched by the weight of investigation.

Most of the characters instrumental to the main story line are men, but Wilson devotes his greatest energies to the women in Inspector Falcón's life: his ex-wife Inés, a capable lawyer whose quest to hang on to her current marriage takes devastating, frighteningly believable turns, and his one-time girlfriend Consuelo, who is reluctantly seeking therapy for anxiety attacks that expose uncomfortable revelations about her traumatic early life.

For a novel so rich with detail and characters, The Hidden Assassins has one surprising flaw: Inspector Falcón's de-emphasis. Instead of driving the action, he ends up as an observer in his own series, more reflective than instrumental. But it's a minor complaint, as the novel forges a link between personal calamity and greater terror concerns. ·

Sarah Weinman writes about crime and mystery fiction at

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