A thriller worthy of le Carré, beginning with an improbable premise—namely, the infiltration of al-Qaeda by an American agent.
John Wells is a former college football star, unrepentant about having broken a Yalie’s leg on the field of battle. Now, in a real war, he’s a devout Muslim with a long beard and access to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. But is he really a fundamentalist promoting terror? That’s the lingering question of this taut tale by New York Times reporter Berenson (The Number, 2003), who deftly imagines the international shadowland where spooks and assassins ply their trades. In doing so, Berenson avoids the perils of caricature; his bad guys are legion, but they are also recognizably human, and if some of them are a shade evil (“The thought of attacking America always excited him”), others are not completely on board with the whole slaughter-the-infidel program. Wells, as it happens, works for the Great Satan; he’s a “singular national asset,” but one who likes to play by his own rules. Still, has he been turned? The bad guys seem to think he’s one of them, for they’ve sent Wells home to enact a chain of events that will end with the detonation of a dirty bomb somewhere in New York. There are moments in all this that beg for the willing suspension of disbelief, but Berenson doesn’t belabor them; neither does he overwork the formulas (rogue agent falls in love with beautiful but hard-bitten agency handler; bad guys make murderous mayhem), though the book is full of genre conventions. The payoff is tremendous, and there are standout episodes that hint that the fundamentalists know how to work American decadence—as when one terrorist recruits a patsy by telling him that it’s all part of an audition for reality TV.
Well done throughout, and sure to be noticed. After all, Keanu Reeves has already expressed interest in playing Wells.