Readers of Thomas Perry's new thriller, "The Bomb Maker," will practically have earned Ph.Ds in sophisticated explosive-making techniques before finishing this tale of a mad bomber on the rampage in Los Angeles. It's fascinating, sinister stuff — and Perry's depraved mastermind is all too creepily believable.
Perry, the prolific author of books such as "The Butcher's Boy" and "Metzger's Dog," adeptly plays on our awareness of public-place terrorist bombings, creating an atmosphere of anxiety and dread. Despite several holes in the plot, you'll keep flipping the pages, ever fearful of what bloody horror will strike unlucky L.A. next.
One of the cruelest aspects of this bomber's strategy is that he designs bombs that look as if they can be defused by the police experts but have secret elements that kill and maim the unwary. Retired Bomb Squad head Dick Stahl seems to be the only man who can successfully match wits with the bomber (whose name we never learn), and he is recruited away from his private security business to settle the ogre's hash and make it possible for the L.A. citizenry to ride the subway again, and buy gas, and hold kids' baseball games in Griffith Park.
Admirably, Perry's bomb squad has female members, and it's not long before the divorced Stahl and Sgt. Diane Hines are working up a sweat indoors as well as out. At first these steamy scenes feel as if they're simply a convention of the genre. Later, while recovering from a bomb attack, Hines thinks about why she seduced Stahl in the first place, and it makes a kind of sense beyond any clauses in Perry's book contract. "In the end she had insisted on the sex — thrown herself at him because sex was the opposite of death, and death might win in a day or so, and because she needed to be as close to him tonight as she could be."
The relationship violates police department regulations — Stahl is Hines's supervisor — and he gets kicked off the case by the cranky mayor of L.A., whose dislike of Stahl is never really explained. Stahl is returned to work only after clumsier people are vaporized.
It's too bad, then, that Perry's good guy, ace EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) expert Stahl, talks like Sgt. Joe Friday much of the time and is about as interesting. Nor does it help that Perry's big finish — a wild shootout followed by a bomb factory blown to kingdom come — feels like one of those action-flick trailers that make you wish you'd brought earplugs to the theater.
Nor do we learn a lot about what makes the bomber tick psychologically. His early life was in Illinois, where his parents "had been eager for him to grow up and move out of the house. He had always been sullen and solitary, and they didn't like him much." There's not much detail there, though with those basics, maybe Proustian particulars are unnecessary.
Once the bomber realizes that he gets a kick out of blowing people up, he needs financial backing to carry out spectacular attacks. One of a number of implausible elements in Perry's plot has the bomber cruising the dark web in search of international terrorist groups that will fund him. He finds one easily, though it seems odd that U.S. intelligence agencies would not have picked up on this.
The terrorists — all nameless, ideology-less, denatured bad chaps — at one point order the bomber to procure an arsenal of guns for a big massacre they are planning in L.A. They need 15 AK-47s, a bunch of pistols, and plenty of ammo. The bomber drives from gun show to gun show around the Southwest and gathers the weaponry in no time at all. He never doubts he can accomplish this without revealing his identity to anybody. Readers won't doubt it, either. Piece of cake.
Despite its shortcomings — I have a list of five major plot holes — "The Bomb Maker" does one thing very well. Plainly well-researched, it makes graphically real the dangers faced by American urban bomb squads in an era when they could be called into service any day. Luckily, the real bomb squads have so far mostly had to deal with klutzes, not the kind of brilliantly skilled practitioner Perry introduces to us in his work of fiction. But it's good to be reminded that these men and women — many of them formerly in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan — are well prepared, should they be needed.
Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson.
By Thomas Perry
Mysterious Press. 384 pp. $26