Nothing solidifies the reputation of a spy novelist so much as prescience. Graham Greene’s “Quiet American” appeared only a year after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and before American advisers had been sent to Vietnam in large numbers. Four years before the Cuban missile crisis, with Fulgencio Batista still in power, Greene wrote another novel, this one about possible secret military installations in Cuba. As for Ian Fleming, his vision of nonstate terrorist groups seeking nuclear weapons remains the most frightening and relevant aspect of the James Bond series.
Richard North Patterson would probably admit he does not hope his latest “entertainment,” as Greene would have called it, is prescient in the least. It tells the tale of Al Qaeda’s plan to set off a nuclear bomb on Sept. 11, 2011. Indeed, all that stands between a solemn anniversary and Osama bin Laden’s evil designs are Brooke Chandler, a patriotic C.I.A. agent, and his mentor, Carter Grey, now retired. The plot sends Chandler to the Middle East, and the narrative alternates between Chandler’s attempts to uncover the bomb’s location, and the workings of Al Qaeda, specifically a dastardly operative taking orders from Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. (Bin Laden’s appearance in “western” Pakistan in the prologue might date the book a bit, but Patterson’s portrayal of the terrorist leader directing plots and speaking portentously is in keeping with the discoveries following his death in Abbottabad last month.)
From before Fleming’s time, villains have always been more complex than heroes, and that’s true here as well. Patterson doesn’t have any huge insights into the two leaders of Al Qaeda, but they are certainly livelier than Chandler, who has all the dullness of Tom Clancy’s stick figures. Patterson avoids the right-wing talking points that animate Clancy’s stories, but the result is still tedious. We are given hints that Chandler’s interests extend beyond his world of intrigue and espionage — on his night table sit a translation of “War and Peace” and some Arabic poetry — but the narrative never allows him much in the way of an inner life. His relationship with an Israeli woman brings the book almost to a halt; their romantic conversations revolve around topics like the political history of her homeland. “A right-wing Israeli had assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, our greatest hope for peace. So we had an election: Rabin’s successor, Peres, who also favored peace, against Netanyahu, a man supported by fanatics.” Chandler undoubtedly finds this kind of talk sexier than the reader will.
Patterson, who has written several best-selling political thrillers, is a solid storyteller who doesn’t allow nuanced characterization to interrupt his well-worked plots. The merit of his books, and what makes them occasionally lugubrious, is his effort to show off his research. “The Israelis provided us with a salutary lesson: another invasion in 1996, this time to wipe out Hezbollah. The result was a mass exodus of Shia from the south and the indiscriminate killing of civilians by the I.D.F., whether by accident or design. The worst was when the I.D.F. shelled Qana, where the U.N. was sheltering Shia refugees.” This is Chandler speaking, and he is only one of Patterson’s characters who enjoy the monologue. We receive lectures on almost every “hot” topic, from the history of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah to the political situations in Pakistan and Lebanon. There are even references to WikiLeaks. Writers as distinct from Patterson as Rebecca West have used this narrative approach to excellent effect, but here it feels painfully choreographed. Patterson can write, and he does seem to have an interest in the world as it exists. Perhaps next time he will tell us tomorrow’s news rather than yesterday’s.
Available at Liberty Books