"The Silent Man," by Alex Berenson
Monday, February 9, 2009
THE SILENT MAN
By Alex Berenson
Putnam. 418 pp. $25.95
Muslim militants half a world away are determined to obtain the elements needed to build a nuclear weapon, smuggle it into America and explode the device in Washington, D.C., as payback for decades -- centuries, they would say -- of Western oppression. How might they bring off such a scheme? How might our government's agents stop them? Alex Berenson's third John Wells thriller pits his CIA superhero against just such a plot, and like "The Faithful Spy" and "The Ghost War," it's an exciting story and a timely one.
This is a novel about revenge -- revenge at several levels. In the previous novel, Wells humiliated a billionaire arms dealer named Pierre Kowalski. The arms dealer vowed revenge and sends hired killers to Washington to obtain it. Wells survives their attack, but his lover, Jennifer Exley, also a CIA agent, is seriously injured. Wells vows his own revenge and sets off to find and kill the arms dealer. Kowalski offers Wells a deal: Kowalski's life will be spared in exchange for information about a plot to explode a nuclear weapon in the United States. This carries us to the ultimate level: the militants' decision to punish the West for sins extending from the Crusades to the invasion of Iraq.
The novel's great strength is its realistic, almost minute-by-minute account of how the militants steal two unusable nuclear weapons from a Russian military base and transport them to the United States, where they are painstakingly cannibalized to create a new device -- the "jerry-rigged monster they were building from a few pieces of uranium and steel" -- on an isolated farm in New York. All three militants, besides their geopolitical grievances, blame Americans for the deaths of family members. One of the three suffers pangs of conscience at the prospect of killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, but the other two want only to slaughter as many Americans as possible. As one says, "The Americans hadn't understood the message of September 11"; therefore, it's time for an even more dramatic message. Their leader hopes that, after the bomb goes off, the Unites States will blame the Russians and spark all-out nuclear war between the superpowers.
Berenson, a reporter for the New York Times, tells his story expertly. He has a sharp eye for detail, a good understanding of the "tradecraft" of the spy world and a talent for vivid writing. (Young streetwalkers on Hamburg's notorious Reeperbahn "looked like high school juniors who had fallen asleep in their beds and woken up in hell.") He squeezes every drop of suspense out of the approaching nuclear holocaust. Or at least as much as he can, given that we know John Wells is on the case.
The novel's only serious flaw is that it operates on two distinct levels. Wells is an action hero, a close cousin of Jack Bauer of "24" fame. Time after time, when his boss and his lover urge caution, Wells goes it alone and somehow survives against overwhelming odds. Consider this scene: Wells, the most dangerous man on the planet, confronts Kowalski, one of the most evil men on the planet, along with the arms dealer's supermodel girlfriend, Nadia and his bodyguard, known as the Dragon, allegedly the most lethal shooter in the world, in a mansion that contains "the most striking sculpture that Wells had ever seen." The Dragon keeps his hand on his gun, Kowalski sneers with his lips "pursed . . . into a rictus grin," and Wells says things like, "You're awful brave with that bodyguard next to you." This sounds more than anything else like one of those scenes when James Bond confronts some monstrous villain -- Wells even finds time to feel Bond-style lust for Nadia before making his exit.
Wells's derring-do is, of course, the stuff of popular fiction, and that's fine, except that here it contrasts rather jarringly with the sophistication of Berenson's account of the nuclear plot. It's probably wise to take Wells's heroics with a grain of salt and concentrate on Berenson's all-too-persuasive blueprint of how we might be blown to smithereens. At best, Berenson is writing first-rate commercial fiction on a par with, say, Len Deighton or Daniel Silva. If he wanted to advance to the highest level of the game, up there with the likes of John le Carré, Alan Furst, Graham Greene and Eric Ambler, he would have to sedate -- or just lose -- John Wells and give us a champion with more gravitas and uncertainty, one less likely to save America from extinction every few months. Still, "The Silent Man" remains superior entertainment, if not quite all we might wish it to be.